Parzival's Hope: Conservatism, 'the Right' and Bramwell
The cover story for the last summer edition of American Conservative (Aug. 29 issue), “Defining Conservatism Down” by Austin Bramwell, seemed to promise a tale of how ‘the Right’ has lost its former intellectual vivacity and become the complacent steward of an intellectual legacy about which relatively few, if any, contemporary conservative ‘intellectuals’ have many compelling questions. Neither do contemporaries, by and large, apparently have any strong challenges to the fundamental, foundational notions laid down by the coterie of major mid-century thinkers, whose names are all well-known to old ‘movement’ hands and to some neophytes who came of age in the late ‘90s. (Paleoconservatism, noticeably absent from the article, does engage in critical and challenging engagement with the ‘movement’ greats, and its adherents have shown a tremendous willingness to go against, beyond or away from the pleasant neo-Burkean and neo-Idealist theses of Kirk and Weaver, for example, even as they accept many of their observations.) No new comprehensive reevaluations of American conservatism or the American Right (which are assuredly not the same thing, but which Mr. Bramwell consistently conflates) are forthcoming, according to this account, and the article seeks to explain why this is so.
In the course of Mr. Bramwell’s winding article, which is all the more interesting for its not having paid much attention to its purported theme, he stated that the intellectual challenge to the Left posed by the Right has grown weaker and flabbier in no small part because of contemporary acceptance of a ‘consensus’ (perhaps collection of ideas might be a better way of putting it) that is basically unquestioned. The intellectual heavy lifting has already been done, so contemporary “conservatives” apparently claim, and now it is time to put it into practice. Whatever occasional disagreements occur, they have ceased to be over major theoretical clashes, and it is here that Mr. Bramwell locates one of the causes of the decline of conservative intellectual activity. Instead of explaining how this happened, which is what one might have expected, he discusses what conservatism was like before the decline and, after random digressions into libertarian theory, suggests a few remedies for recovering that earlier fruitful competition of ideas.
The article is fairly ecumenical (minus paleoconservatives, except perhaps Kirk), as major figures generally associated with the Right from Rand (!) to Jaffa are included with all their mutual disagreements, but both the description of the Right under consideration here, the intellectual problems of the Right and the prospects for future intellectual creativity run heavily towards the libertarian side. There is not much point in dwelling long on the ever-vexing problem of terms and definitions (though Weaver would), but Chilton Williamson’s distinction between conservatives and Rightists might prove useful here to highlight the terminological vagueness of Mr. Bramwell’s article that muddles much of his analysis.
As Mr. Williamson puts it:
The primary distinction within the conservative tradition, almost by definition, is the most hoary one as well. It amounts to the difference between a conservatism founded uncompromisingly on eternal principles and the conservatism that appeals to historical context and the status quo, prudence, and pragmatism. The term “Rightist” commonly designates conservatives of the first division, while “conservative” denotes those belonging to the second. Thus, a “conservative” seeks to conserve what exists in the present, while a “Rightist” is prepared to dismantle contemporary institutions in order to replace them with ancient ones resurrected from the past–monarchism, say, or the feudal system. In the culture of the modern West, Rightists are always the “extremists” (e.g., Patrick Buchanan), marginalized in public debate and practical politics alike in favor of “conservatives” who have so far discarded absolute principles while emphasizing pragmatic ones as to have become nearly indistinguishable from the relativistic liberals they claim to oppose.
Needless to say, in this definition libertarians are not to be found on either side, though Rightists are often interested in what libertarians have to say and are willing to work with them in common cause. But even to the extent that libertarians root their libertarianism in certain established constants, be it their conception of human nature and natural law, or have developed a philosophical defense of self-interest and self-determination there is little that is Rightist about them. The fact of the matter is that libertarians have never really been Rightists in the sense Williamson means it, libertarianism has been as much of a hindrance to the elaboration of conservative ideas as a support and especially in the field of economics most conservatives have leaned on libertarian economists to the point where they have come to accept far too much of the libertarian view of man and society, stripping them of the capacity to make cogent arguments outside of the materialist framework in which they have learned to argue. Thus Mr. Bramwell’s account of the intellectual failures of libertarians or the current inquiries of libertarian groups distracts us with material that is not directly pertinent to the problem. It is actually a measure of the extent to which some libertarian arguments have been found compelling and sustainable, or at least pragmatically useful (to conservatives), that intellectual conservatism has gone into stagnation and decline.
Interesting as it may be to know that Prof. Richard Epstein, a very learned regular contributor to TAC, has written libertarian apologetical tracts that Mr. Bramwell finds generally unconvincing, the failure of libertarians to justify libertarianism does not tell me very much about how or why the complementary conservatisms of Kirk, Weaver and Voegelin (the last, incidentally, generally eschewed the label of conservative as too limiting), among others, did not provide a more or less compelling intellectual legacy. We are all too aware of how their ideas failed to prevail in the political arena (a vindication of the idea that truth and power are antithetical?), and how the power plays of apostates or intruders upon real conservatism inside government and the media drove most real conservatives from their positions of influence in the 1980s, but this does not explain how a ‘movement’ led intellectually by the likes of Kirk fell prey intellectually to the cheap slogans, abstractions and bad history of the Jaffaites, “Claremont conservatives” and standard neoconservatives. It is not hard to understand why the Wall Street Journal editors prefer Max Boot’s drivel to Thomas Fleming’s well-crafted articles or why neocon hacks prefer Christopher Hitchens to Christopher Dawson, but it is perplexing why supposedly thinking men go in for such tripe. I do have a possible answer to this mystery.
Is this not a sterling example of the tendency Kuenhelt-Leddihn observed in the ability of oversimplified ideologies, such as the Enlightenment and Islam, to spread quickly while becoming immediately sterile, while true, profound and intense ideas, such as Christian dogma in all its complexity and refinement, take several centuries to expand and express all their richness and genius as they continue to inspire and develop? (Much like Marxism having become the opiate of liberal intellectuals, tawdry “liberal democracy” and its easy catchwords of “freedom” and “opportunity” have become the opiate of conservative thinkers, to the detriment of all serious analysis or argument.) Out of the richness of the extensive development of Christian thought come all the tensions of Christian man in history, as well as the intellectual productivity those tensions generated. Contemporary “conservatives” have not simply accepted a ‘consensus’ and set about implementing it–they have deliberately eliminated the most serious tensions and opposing poles from their company, the better to enforce discipline and ideological purity. Conservatism is not an ideology, but contemporary “conservatives” have created an ideology from bits and pieces of the ‘consensus’ deemed acceptable for immediate political goals. It is not that conservative ideas have failed to prevail as such, but that most of their own adherents largely abandoned or marginalised them when they were no longer immediately useful in the most mercenary sense.
The interpretations of centuries of traditional wisdom that were the writings of Kirk, Bradford and Weaver, to name the best known, were examples of latter-day expressions of the tremendously varied and extensive inheritance of Christian civilisation as such. The fantastically reductionist distillations of all of Western history into what became merely shoddy formulaic invocations of “freedom” (Meyer) or the even more insipid egalitarianism of the Jaffaites and their Claremont Straussian compatriots seem to have gathered more interest among intellectuals and amateurs in their very simplicity, elasticity and limited explanatory power. Neoconservatives themselves have proved to be masters at stretching any simplified concept of this kind beyond all recognition to serve their perverse goals (their motto might well be “aggression is morality”). Such ideas can be used to drive a program or a platform, but not to elucidate the lineaments of reality and truth, in which ideologues have little interest.
Conservatism is not, as we must repeat ad nauseam these days, an ideology, and the ease with which Mr. Bramwell falls into the error of calling it such left me uneasy with the whole analysis. Conservatism is, perhaps, a persuasion or, more specifically, a more or less coherent assembly of philosophical defenses of the normal, the natural and the true as mediated through the inherited culture and traditions of a particular civilisation inspired and created by Christianity and enriched by the insights of the ancients. We are, in a sense, good encyclopedists who copy, compile and interpret the ancients to venerate their traditions, rather than mock them as the encyclopedistes did. To adapt Mr. Bramwell’s imagery in a rather different way, there is a Grail, if the Grail be understood in its medieval sense as a symbol of salvation, and our knighthood would be dedicated to rediscovering the sort of society, politics and culture most appropriate to approaching and receiving it. That would be the fulfillment of Parzival’s hope.
For this quest libertarians have little intellectually to offer. Libertarians may or may not be individually religious, but libertarianism itself is indifferent to spiritual claims, has no time for theological priorities and measures primarily in terms of individual self-interest, which cannot really be squared with a defense of a society dedicated to consecrated good order and restraint. A movement fundamentally uninterested in bringing that consecrated good order to modern society, because it is allergic and hostile to claims of sacrality and order, is unlikely to yield ideas in support of that goal.
Mr. Bramwell observes that no one thinker defines all of American conservatism. At the same time, Mr. Bramwell follows this up with the claim about the “unacknowledged consensus” conservatives have all reached. In the very vagueness of the consensus and mutual contradiction of different conservative ‘schools’, there is supposed to be a certain stability. As for the lack of one defining thinker, this is, and always has been, true. Meyer criticised the New Conservatives almost from the outset for being too preoccupied with the claims and good of the community at expense of the individual, and berated Kirk for being insufficiently programmatic, as if the good professor was supposed to be running a campaign. Meyer’s sort of “conservative” was inclined to ideological simplifications and policy solutions–his was the conservatism that was more interested in trying to “do something” before fully understanding the nature of the problem. Some old-fashioned devotees to Meyer still make their obeisances at Conservative Battleline on the Web, and some paleos, particularly the late Dr. Francis, have taken some satisfaction in pointing out the rather large flaws with fusionism after Battleline confusedly critiqued paleoconservatism. Neither side really credits the authorities of the other, unless it is for fusionism to adopt Kirk for itself. Obviously, neither Meyer nor Kirk, nor any other single person, can command the agreement of all self-styled conservatives. Nor has any one person created the all-encompassing vision that would thoroughly explain the conservative view–that much is to be expected in any intellectual endeavour.
But if Kirk, for example, has not created a “commanding legacy” or, “like Burke,” developed ideas “so powerful that they can only be contended with, not refuted,” one might ask what such a commanding legacy might look like. For those interested in ideas, Kirk’s six principles of conservatism, among other things, have continued to be definitive, even as they cease to be operative for most Americans, and it is largely because of him that we recognise the power, importance and validity of Burke’s ideas. It is for good reason that Chilton Williamson ranked Kirk’s Conservative Mind sixth in his second-most important category in The Conservative Bookshelf; it is even more telling that Kirk was the first American on the list following the authors of The Federalist. (If it is objected that Mr. Williamson’s ranking runs strongly in a paleoconservative direction, it is all the more reason for Mr. Bramwell to explain why he ignored the paleos in his article, since they represent just the sort of principled renewal, combativeness and vitality the Right has in very short supply.) Arguably, without Kirk, Edmund Burke’s blasts against the Revolution and his defenses of historically constituted institutions, privileges, prejudices and rights would have been ignored in America even until now. Modern American conservatism is essentially unimaginable without that rehabilitation of Burke and the themes in American intellectual history Kirk discerned, whatever flaws we find with Kirk’s interpretation or Burke’s own claims. Kirk made conservative ideas seem tenable and respectable at a time when they should have been thoroughly dead and buried, which was almost as difficult as preserving respectable, genuine conservative ideas today when conservatism is supposed to have politically triumphed. (The plethora of “conservative” pundits and ‘intellectuals’ roaming the land today are responsible for generating a great deal of heat, but relatively little, if any, light.)
In terms of intellectual accomplishment, a measure of Kirk’s importance is that it is virtually impossible to conceive of today’s conservative Americans calling our persuasion conservatism if Kirk had not taught us what a conservative mind or American conservatism might look like. Undoubtedly, the Republicans with whom conservatives chose to cohabit for so many years would have invariably have succumbed to the same ideological predilections and policy interests that they have done, but there would have been much less in the way of principled intellectual resistance to that transformation without Kirk’s definition of the problem. That is not simply a success in changing the terminology we (mis)use, but infusing new life into a supposedly obsolete philosophical persuasion and reimagining of the rhetoric of American politics (not to mention reemphasising the role of imagination in defense of permanent things). If too many Americans are too illiterate or uneducated to appreciate or benefit from that achievement, this should not be held against Kirk. Likewise, if Kirk was insufficiently prophetic about the degradation of our society and too optimistic in his hopes for American renewal, that is not what should count against his arguments.
If Mr. Bramwell’s idea of “the Grail” is the single, defining figure whose intellectual legacy defines conservatism, he might be right in rejecting Kirk (but then he would also be wrong to assume that Burke defines all of English conservatism, when the English have hardly ever thought so). Kirk is certainly not widely read outside of paleoconservative circles, and his priorities in preserving local community and social order would make most modern “conservative” pundits physically ill, but if there is one conservative thinker whose work had and will retain the capacity to draw people from all the various little ‘schools’ it would have to be Kirk. His synthesis is one of the few to date that is broad and deep enough to accommodate and reshape the mishmash of views that pass for conservative, and it is the only one readily accessible to the semi-educated “conservative” intelligentsia (Weaver and Voegelin, for example, are both well above and beyond them). But any one individual achievement would not be what matters, least of all to Kirk were he here to advise us, but rather whether there is a continuation of the intellectual tradition Kirk helped to preserve. It is that tradition that has the “commanding legacy” and it is that tradition that can only be engaged, not really refuted. The fact that most real conservatives would acknowledge that is in no small part thanks to Kirk’s successful defense of tradition.
If “the Grail” is instead the all-encompassing argument or defining principle that would rule all conservative thinking hereafter or that would “expose the errors of liberalism,” I doubt very much whether any conservative thinker worth his salt ever sought such a thing. This would be to fall for the trick of the terrible simplifiers in pretending that there was a single concept or explanation that could elucidate all of the problems and complexities of human society, answer all of the dilemmas of the human predicament or simply refute all conceivable ideological errors in one swift blow. As any good heresiologist would know, different diseases of the spirit require different medicines: remedying their deficiencies will vary from case to case. As any good philosopher would know the appropriate justice for one aspect of life is not suitable for another. As common sense tells us, moral and political judgements must take into account the whole range of circumstances before applying any principles.
This is another reason why, incidentally, libertarianism cannot help us and can only muddle things, because for libertarians individual freedom and self-interest supposedly do explain and govern everything from social and political relations to economics to family life. (If conservatism were to have a slogan (and it would not, but for argument’s sake let’s imagine it), it might be, “Whatever can fit into a slogan should not be believed.”) If conservatism seems to be lacking in a “commanding” intellectual “legacy,” it is perhaps only because conservatism affirms the normal, natural and true, all of which are already readily understood by sane societies. Because of the affirmation of the normal and natural, there is relatively little intellectual work that needs to be done akin to that of system-builders, ideologues and philosophes. The work that conservatives must do is to apply what we understand about the normal and natural to contemporary problems and make compelling arguments for the refutation of all doctrines of emancipation, perversion and disorder.
It is also quite an assumption that the intellectual impact of the major conservative writers of the 1940s and ‘50s will not prove to be significant in decades to come. They may enjoy a renaissance after conservatives come down from the neocon-induced high of war frenzy and democratist babble and need something solid and reliable with which to reorient themselves. Then again, they may not, and their writings will go the way of the novels of William Gilmore Simms, the tracts of John Taylor and the reflections of Khomyakov: remembered by a relatively small band of devotees, but largely forgotten and deemed irrelevant to all later debates. But someone with perhaps a bit more historical perspective might say, “It is still too early to tell.” Edmund Burke was for many years largely a footnote of late nineteenth century Whiggery in Parliament, regarded more highly in his own time for his thoughts on aesthetics than politics, until Kirk revived his name and political ideas and placed him, convincingly or not, at the heart of the Anglo-American conservative intellectual tradition. If asked in 1905 about Edmund Burke’s intellectual legacy, one would likely have rated him as a largely unimportant figure who had no lasting impact. Again today it is questionable how much real impact his ideas have had, but at least today, thanks to Kirk, most conservatives, real or not, feel obliged to pay their respects to the Irish master.
There is thus no telling who might rediscover Voegelin a century or two from now and find in his intense philosophy the most compelling arguments of all. If there is ever going to be a specifically conservative epistemology, I think it likely that later philosophers of our persuasion will find in the writings of Voegelin and Prof. Lukacs on anamnesis and memory great inspiration and guidance. Yet no one could claim at the present time that these ideas have taken the world by storm. We should not be so impatient. The cultivation of conservative ideas is like the planting of olive groves or grape vines: the work of planting is difficult and painstaking, the plant grows slowly, but, once grown, it is stable and reliable and bears fruit for ages. If 20th century conservative ideas do not endure and flourish later, it is likely because they were too caught up in the here and now of political infighting and compromises to win elections.
History has many examples of unexpected revivals of ideas and intellectual figures once marginalised or considered failures or unimportant. The influence of Neoplatonism in the Christian world for a thousand years owed more to the little-regarded Pseudo-Dionysios than to any of the ‘major’ Neoplatonists whose work he adapted, today St. Gregory Palamas’ writings enjoy an influence and importance in modern Orthodox theology that they had not possessed to a similar degree in the past, and Aquinas made a startling comeback in the early twentieth century to once again loom large on the scene of modern Catholic thinking. So it might be with some reinterpreter of 20th century conservative ideas in the future.
Certainly, the politics Burke defended went out of fashion in Britain not long after his death, and it would have been fairly quixotic for anyone, to say nothing of conservatives, in the nineteenth century to count him as one of their fellows–this was always something that Kirk acknowledged and it was a problem that he solved by providing his own conception of conservatism in opposition (or indifference) to both actual British Conservatism and Continental Catholic and Prussian Counter-Revolutionary thought. (Kirk thus preemptively overcame George Grant’s later charge that American conservatism is not conservative by essentially accepting the accusation, making the charge irrelevant and then making the lack of conservatism, as understood by Grant, into a virtue.)
Dismissing reaction and the ancien regime conservatism of the French Right, among others, as uncreative and useless, Kirk provided a model for completely redefining a philosophical position and recasting a past writer in an entirely new light. Into his conservatism he fitted Burke and other such dubious characters as the atheist Santayana and the theologically unreliable Paul Elmer More together with the Southern Democrat Calhoun and the truly inspiring, actually Christian, solidly reactionary monarchist Eliot. If Kirk’s conservatism does not endure and convince intellectually, it will not be because of any deficiency in the core principles he enunciated or central arguments that he made, but because of the oft-times eccentric ways in which he tried to find conservatism in the most improbable of places. By trying to make conservatism more palatable to Americans he succeeded in making it much less savoury and memorable. A more thoroughgoing ancient conservatism would be more of an acquired taste, but also more of a culinary delight.
THE FUTURE OF CONSERVATISM
Laying out the prospects for future conservative intellectual vitality, Mr. Bramwell described three examples of promising relatively new prospects: Critical Review, “evolutionary conservatives” and “techno-skeptic conservatives” of the New Atlantis mould. I must confess that I am not part of the “small coterie of academics” familiar with the libertarian Critical Review. From Mr. Bramwell’s description of their hostility to modern democracy, it sounds as if they may have some good ideas, or they are at least rehearsing tried and true anti-democratic arguments (e.g., the masses are ignorant–which they are–and cannot properly understand political problems). However, from his description I am not exactly overwhelmed by the claim that modern politics is too complicated for the human mind to grasp nor am I particularly impressed with the innovativeness or vitality of this journal if the best it can manage is a truism about the democratic masses established by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn at least 30 years ago.
“Evolutionary conservatives,” such as the named Steve Sailer and the neglected Thomas Fleming (though I wonder whether he would have wanted to be included under such a label anyway), are those who apply lessons of genetics and sociobiology to social and political questions. Not being conversant with Mr. Sailer’s work in this particular area, I cannot comment on just how exciting or interesting his insights as “the most talented evolutionary conservative” may be, but I can say that Mr. Bramwell left a rather gaping hole in his account of these sorts of conservatives by failing to mention Dr. Fleming’s The Politics of Human Nature, available for well over a decade by now, and indeed his entire project of marshaling sociobiology in his Aristotelian approach to ethics and social relations. Perhaps I am too parochial in my interests, but when I think of “evolutionary conservative,” Thomas Fleming is the first and really only name that comes to mind. Pity that Mr. Bramwell neglected to mention anything about him.
As a source of “fresh” ideas, New Atlantis might be the least likely of all, since the “techno-skeptic” instinct in conservatives and in modern people generally has expressed itself time and time again in dystopian novels and popular sci-fi for nearly a century. But if these ideas are not “fresh,” they are absolutely necessary and important. My own inclinations run strongly in this direction, as I am profoundly concerned that the advent of nanotechnology in particular could easily result in a slave society on a massive scale that is at the same time morally and aesthetically bankrupt. Seeing what increased longevity has done to help ruin a sense of obligation to one’s elderly parents is proof enough that seeking technically improved material life is a fast track to a moral and spiritual wasteland unlike any dreamed of by dystopian authors. It would not be difficult to imagine the decay in social bonds if nanites were capable of freeing everyone from illness and hunger, among other things.
Real conservatives (or actually, real Rightists, using Williamson’s definition) possess an historical-mindedness and a mentality of inquiry that calls them to refine and explore continually the consequences of their firmly held principles, which are themselves cultivated in accordance with divine and natural laws. Using these principles, in turn, we engage with the complexity and natural variety of life in all its particulars and do not seek to squeeze the living juices from the fruits of the grove of contingency, uniqueness, diversity and circumstance. We therefore cannot hate the local or the particular, and if it conflicts with what is natural and good then we restore to it what it is lacking and preserve what is best in it, because we love all things in their peculiarity, smallness and irreplaceability like Chesterton’s patriot’s boasting of the smallness of his country. This is the holding to the good in all things that the Apostle enjoins upon us, and this is the core of the conservative persuasion. Human flourishing in communion with God is the measure by which we judge the value and importance of ideas and institutions, and an extensive familiarity with the course of history is vital to making those judgements. This is founded in a humane love of others and creation and a worshipful adoration of the Creator whose purposes and being are revealed through His works.
Conservative writings that embrace the truths that have endured and enlightened our civilisation will endure to the extent that they participate creatively in the traditions of Christian civilisation. The single most important thing that conservatives today might do to revive a cultivation of serious ideas would be to immerse themselves in learning and reflection to the virtual exclusion of contemporary enthusiasms and excitements, except to provide much-needed witness to the shortcomings and confusions of the era. Carefully cultivating serious ideas, rather than drumming up a series of convenient talking points, is the only way that conservatism will be a lasting intellectual force. The close alignment and subservience of most journals, foundations, institutes and think tanks to party requirements make that impossible in most recognised centers of what passes for “conservatism” today. If conservatives are interested in making their ideas have greater impact on what thinking people believe, rather than providing a respectable veneer under which hucksters and hacks can operate, then they must retire into a sort of exile for a time and engage in a great deal of hard work to reimagine conservatism from the sources of our tradition rather than simply reiterating the capable, but always partial interpretations that have been handed down by the intellectual founders of the ‘movement’. On that score, I heartily agree with Mr. Bramwell’s call for small, elite groups “to animate conservative ideas once more.”
Two suggestions for sources to consult extensively spring to mind immediately, as they are apparently the least obvious to most conservatives and may be the most fundamental to the project of reimagining conservatism. The Church Fathers are the least immediately political and most completely non-secular, which makes their wisdom indubitably more valuable than a library of political theorists or novelists, and the Russian conservative Slavophiles are at once among the most insightful of nineteenth century critics of Western liberalism while also being the most rooted in Orthodox Christianity of any form of conservatism. Part of the reimagination of conservatism will involve a reevaluation of the debt of the Western tradition to the Byzantine East, or rather a recognition that the division between them is historically meaningless until the late middle ages and that our spiritual and intellectual ancestors are to be found as much in Constantinople and Alexandria as they are in Italy, Germany and England. There should thus be a much more thoroughgoing effort to adhere conservatism to Christian orthodoxy and to place the Bible and Church Tradition more squarely at the heart of conservative arguments rather than making frequent but insubstantial references to them. If conservatives have any intention of establishing and defending a society formed and leavened by Christian truth, there can be no other sources more important for this than the repositories of that truth.
It is in this direction that any ideas of lasting importance are to be found–the sterility of perpetually invoking “equality,” “freedom” or even “freedom and order” with little or nothing of substance behind these words is patently evident to all serious observers. But this is why I imagine that Kirk, Bradford, Voegelin and Weaver will continue to be read and will continue to have noticeable influence long after the heyday of Austrian economics, libertarian theory and statist egalitarian claptrap has passed.
Daniel Larison | August 19, 2005
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