A taxonomy of the Right

This is a preview of an intellectual history of conservatism essay that I’m always meaning to, but probably never will get a chance to, write.  Of course, there are already a number of taxonomies of the Right in existence, some obviously self-serving (e.g. establishment hacks vs. brave reformers), some useful for labeling two sides of a particular debate (e.g. neo vs. paleo), and some useful for distinguishing the true conservatives from impostors (e.g. libertarians vs. traditionalists).  I’m going to assume my readers are sufficiently advanced that they don’t need my help making the latter distinction.  Instead, I would like to mark out what I think to be the divisions among thinkers who can all legitimately be called conservative.

  1. The romantic conservatives.  This is the best-known conservative tradition, the one emanating from Edmund Burke.  Often, it is mistakenly regarded as the only tradition of intellectual conservatism.  I call it “romantic” because it is fundamentally a reaction against the philosophe/revolutionary program of restructuring society on rationalist-utilitarian grounds.  The romantic emphasizes the limits of discursive reason–both its ability to capture the complexities of social reality and, more importantly, its ability to inspire the sentiments and loyalties on which society rests.  As a supplement to reason, the romantics promote tradition, that repository of past ages’ wisdom that speaks to man’s heart.  Members of this tradition include Burke, Coleridge, Kirk, Chateaubriand, Maistre, and Brownson.  The latter two may be thought to belong to a distinct subdivision, because of their exclusive focus on legitimate authority, rather than all inherited customs.  Russell Kirk popularized the romantic tradition, more or less equating it with the conservative mind itself.  Today, the most prominent defender of traditionalism would probably be Jim Kalb.
  2. The social conservatives.  A distinct critique of the Revolution emerged in Continental Europe, whose first great voice was Louis de Bonald.  The social conservatives had little interest in tradition per se, but dedicated themselves to the defense of authoritative institutions, especially the monarchical state, the patriarchal family, and the Catholic Church.  Against the egalitarians, they defended distinct roles–with their attendant duties and dependencies–for husbands and wives, kings and subjects.  Such distinctions foster the cohesion of the institution and the virtue of its members.  Most importantly, these relationship-structures are prescribed by God Himself, the ground of all authority, whose sovereignty is in them affirmed.  Government interference is a menace to (other) authoritative institutions, but so is industrial capitalism.  French counter-revolutionaries– Bonald, Le Play, Keller, and La Tour du Pin–form a main branch of this tradition.  Also included would be the proponents of Catholic social doctrine–Taparelli, Leo XIII, Pius XI–in Italy, and a parallel Calvinist movement, led by Kuypar and Dooyeweerd in the Netherlands.  Unlike the romantics, who stayed fairly aloof from economic matters, the social conservatives quickly turned most of their attention to the destructive effects of industrialization, which they hoped to counter by punishing usury, promoting agrarianism, and reviving the guilds in a corporatist political order.They also distinguished themselves in their efforts to legally protect the patriarchal family, through laws against divorce or in favor of primogenitor.  Today, a prominent spokesman for this tradition is Allan Carlson.  Much of the substance of today’s conservatism (e.g. opposition to divorce and homosexuality) derives mostly from this tradition.  Unfortunately, it has not yet received a book-length presentation worthy of it, so it is often ignored (as it was by Kirk).  Robert Nisbet and the Red Tories have, in their own ways, promoted a secularized, watered-down version of this tradition, in which multiple associations are regarded as a check on the State, and so corporatism serves to contract rather than (as Bonald had invisioned) to extend authority.
  3. The distributists/agrarians.  In England and America, social conservatism took a distinct form.  It was at peace with democracy, but remained hostile to industrialization.  Its ideal would be a Jeffersonian republic of small farm holders.  Its two branches were English Catholics (Chesterton, Belloc) and American Southern Protestants (the 12 southerners).  These two branches were brought into dialog and collaboration by Herbert Agar.  It reached its heyday in the 1930′s, but after had few proponents–most notably Wendall Berry and Allan Carlson.
  4. The cultural conservatives.  Around the early twentieth-century, a number of prominent intellectuals began to worry that, with the triumph of liberalism, the West was losing touch with its spiritual roots.  Culture was being submerged in materialism, consumerism, massification, and demagogy.  Examples include Eliot, Spengler, Dawson, Guenon, Evola, and Voegelin.  This conservatism was entirely intellectual; it had no political program.  Thus it only gains attention when some brilliant author gives voice to it.  Unfortunately, we are today not blessed with a Spengler or a Voegelin.  Also to be mentioned in this category, as a deformation, are Leo Strauss and his followers, who absurdly claim that atheism is the true intellectual tradition of the West, contained esoterically in the works of its great thinkers, so that only scholars as clever as the Straussians imagine themselves to be are able to extract it.
  5. The Right-Hegelians.  Hegel himself (the Hegel of Philosophy of Right) was a conservative of sorts.  His emphasis was on building a social order that would fulfill people’s need for the world to make sense to them and thus remove their alienation from the world.  The Left-Hegelians (Marx, etc), starting from some of Hegel’s less fortunate (or less understood) speculations, have had a large but deleterious effect on the world.  The Right-Hegelians were prominent in pre-WWI Prussia, but then fell into obscurity.  Today, this tradition is carried on by the British conservative Roger Scruton.  Right-Hegelism is similar, and complementary, to social conservatism in a number of ways.  Methodologically, the former relies on phenomenology, while the latter relies on a combination of natural law, virtue ethics, and divine command.  Thus, the Hegelians work from a “first-person” perspective (the subjectivity of members of a polity), while the social conservatives take a more “third-person” view.  Hegel and his followers are also more reconciled to industrialism, although they favor sensible regulation and a degree of corporatism.  They have no desire to resurrect home production or an agrarian economy.
  6. The anti-cosmopolitans.  This tradition originates with Herder.  Although he associated with social conservatives, Maurras belonged to this school.  These conservatives emphasize, against liberal universalism, the right and duty of every people to protect its own cultural integrity and to foster intra-group loyalty in its members.  Mark Richardson ably expresses this view on the internet today.
  7. The pseudo-conservatives.  I know, I said I wouldn’t discuss them, but they deserve a mention.  This is the group that is fundamentally dedicated to liberalism, but wants to maintain some conservative elements (usually religious piety, parental authority, sexual restraint, or patriotism) as a check on liberalism’s destructive tendencies.  Tocqueville is the great expositor of this view.

There is, of course, much overlap between these seven groups, but there is as yet no real synthesis.  This is to be contrasted with the more favorable current intellectual state of liberalism.  (Controlling the universities helps.)  Leftism used to have many unreconciled branches:  classical liberalism, technocratic utilitarianism, Marxism, anarchism, syndicalism, and lifestyle autonomism.  In the late twentieth century, analytic philosophers achieved a great synthesis, and “personal autonomy guaranteed by public neutrality toward different private preferences” was established as the fundamental principle of all liberalism.  (Of course, the fact that liberalism now has only one head means that we may hope to cut it off with one well-placed blow.)  We conservatives have not yet achieved our synthesis.  Nor shall we, I think, until social conservatives produce a proper exposition of their views (a project I hope to help with through this blog) and romantic conservatives stop pretending they’re the only game in town.

31 Responses

  1. I would not equate Chesterton/Belloc with “Jeffersonianism”. In my mind Jeffersonianism is one of the most vulgar forms of libertarianism. Like with the rest of Founderaltry I wish traditionalists would move beyond Jefferson and his shallow enlightenment “philosophy.”

  2. Hello Gneisenau,

    I too would like to see Jefferson buried among thinkers on the Right. I’m pleased that you share my distaste for him. In the American context, however, I think “Jeffersonian republic” is a good description of the social order ChesterBelloc were after. The Southern Agrarians were quite explicit about their connection to Jefferson.

  3. Thanks for the clarification, I have very a visceral reaction when I hear Jefferson’s name uttered. I hate to derail the discussion here, but I was wondering if I could get your position on those traditionalists who throw their lot in with the Neo-Confederate movement. In my mind it is one of most asinine movements on history of the Right yet some see Antebellum South as some sort of Agrarian/traditionalist paradise. For myself the American Civil War just seems to be a bunch of WASPs massacring each other over a different interpretation of an Enlightenment principal.

  4. Hello Gneisenau,

    Your question fits in very well with this post, so I welcome it. I agree that, in the 1860s, both North and South were motivated by Whig principles. (You’ll note that the only American from that era that I put on my list of conservatives was Orestes Brownson, who cheered the Union victory as a victory for legitimate authority over rebellion.) Ironically, I think that those who mourn the Confederacy often have virtues that the historical Confederates lacked. The Southern Agrarian movement of the 1920s-30s (Donald Davidson, Allen Tate, etc) seem to me to be the first genuinely conservative intellectual movement (as opposed to an isolated individual here and there) in American history. The pro-Southern “I’ll Take My Stand” belongs in the conservative canon (as does Brownson’s pro-Union “The American Republic”).

  5. analytic philosophers achieved a great synthesis [of leftist thought:] “personal autonomy guaranteed by public neutrality toward different private preferences”

    Great post, and, as usual, I have only quibbles. I think you should to add wealth redistribution to this definition somehow. The personal autonomy that Rawlsians and etc have in mind includes freedom to choose your path in life without the constraint of serious material want. Libertarian leftists tend not to be fully on board with this, but they cast their objections not as objections in principle but as objections in practice—that it is impossible to do the wealth re-distribution without engendering more damage to autonomy than is created by the freedom from want.

    The amazing thing about this formulation is that it is simultaneously very fair to the left’s POV and very revealing as to its essential vapidity.

  6. Yes, you’re right. I think it’s fair to say that wealth redistribution is part of the liberal concensus.

  7. Nice analysis. I would map this taxonomy onto the political spectrum in this way:

    The Republican Party represents the social and fiscal conservative, while the Democratic Party represents the social and fiscal liberal. Here is the outlier:

    The social conservative, who is a fiscal liberal, is a Populist. [Libertarians, of course, are the opposite of Populists. They are socially liberal but fiscally conservative.]

    Unfortunately, in our “winner-take-all” political voting system, with its consequent two-party system, this position is deprived of political representation, and Populists either political dropouts or “swing voters”. This is the dilema of the religious, anti-abortion citizen, who also happens to be blue collar, working class. Who does he turn to?

  8. Is “wealth distribution” part of the liberal consensus? Hmmm, not sure. “Wealth distribution” is part of the capitalist consensus too, which seems to define the fiscal conservative today, but let’s analyze it deeper. If, like a religious Populist, you are in favor of economic justice and restrictions on the unbridled power of the wealthy, does that make you a liberal? What is “wealth distribution”, after all?

    “Wealth distribution” occurs when an economic parasite co-opts the wealth created by others. Which perfectly describes the actions of an “absentee owner” or “landlord”, doesn’t it?

    If we had a system which prohibited people from acquiring wealth they had not earned, i.e., against all “wealth distribution”, logically, it should apply to everyone, not just be used as a rhetorical weapon against the poor.

    The rich benefit from a legal system that allows them to take the wealth created by others. Historically, this was based on the conquest of land and exploitation of forced labor. If supporting this is “conservativism”, all right-thinking people should reject conservativism.

    Historically speaking, socialism was the movement of the masses to end their exploitation by the economic parasites, ending the unjust “wealth distribution” that their oppressed status subjected them to.

    Being against “wealth distribution” to absentee owners and landlords, what is wrong with that? In short, I don’t consider “conservatism” to be the property solely of the rich.

  9. Hi Justin,

    Thanks for bringing us deeper into the issue of wealth redistribution. One of the shortcomings of romantic and cultural conservatism is that, as such, they’re not interested in these issues. While government redistribution of wealth in the interest of Rawlsian “fairness” is part of the liberal consensus, I would not say that there is a consensus one way or the other on the Right. I don’t count “fiscal conservatism” as a true branch of conservatism. If “fiscal conservatism” means not spending money you don’t have, then that’s just plain common sense that conservatives and liberals could in principle agree on. If it means free markets, then it is a species of classical liberalism.

    Some principles of a truly conservative economic attitude:
    1) Hierarchy is good. Wealth inequalities are not intrinsically unjust.
    2) Hierarchy and wealth inequalities exist to serve the common good. (This might not necessarily mean Rawls’ algorithm for maximizing the absolute wealth of the poorest. Inequalities might serve irreducibly communal goods, such as having a magnificent cathedral or a particle accelerator.)
    3) Wealth should be not only ordered to the common good; it should be seen to be so ordered (for example, through aristocracies or guilds with explicit responsibilities to the common good, and through direct government regulation).

  10. Is “wealth distribution” part of the liberal consensus? Hmmm, not sure.

    OK, but you should write a comment about this. Your comment is about advocating for wealth re-distribution and about claiming that some sorts of right-wingers could be in favor of it under some circumstances. A strong concern with the equal distribution of wealth per se, however, is constitutive of the left and not of the right.

    Somewhat unrelatedly, Ireland isn’t ruled by the English any more, so absentee landlords whose property derives from a right of conquest isn’t exactly topical. There is plenty to critique about our current wealthy elite and how they came to their wealth, but their absentee-landlord status really isn’t it.

  11. Actually, Bill, the absentee landlord issue is precisely topical. As I said, the ORIGINS of our current legal system lie in those times of conquest. Not that anyone today’s wealth comes from that source, but that our legal system today grew out of that experience.

    Absentee landlordism is very much a living issue. What exactly is “corporate ownership”, if not that?

  12. For another perspective, i.e. a defense, of the Jeffersonian tradition, I would recommend Daniel Larison’s old essays on Bolingbroke.

    Jefferson has serious problems, but he has had a profound influence on America and what good that can be found in “Jeffersonianism” needs to be salvaged.

  13. As for #7, I feel obliged to defend Tocqueville against your charge that he is the chief of the pseudo-conservatives. One reason is personal and pedagogical, since I read Democracy in America early in college, and it was perhaps the first extended work that exposed me to the conservative tradition. He is trying to explain American politics to the French, and his reference points are constantly to the older French tradition. This made me curious to learn more about the older tradition that he was talking about.

    Second, as to the substance of what Tocqueville wrote, I’m not sure it’s fair to describe him as “fundamentally dedicated to liberalism.” I remember being rather surprised by his conclusion in Democracy in America that democracy is basically good, because he had shown so many flaws with it, both in theory and in practice. I think he ultimately accepted liberalism, but quite reluctantly.

    I should add that I haven’t read The Old Regime and the Revolution (I should say I need to read it), and would be interested to find out whether his opinions differ much from those he expresses in Democracy in America.

  14. Finally, as for Hegel in #5, I think one of the dangers of what you call “social conservatism” lies in its tendency to imagine that it is possible to eliminate the feeling of alienation. There is certainly no need to encourage alienation, which is the effect of much of liberalism, but we should also be clear that we are but wanderers and pilgrims on this earth, and even when we are at home in a good family firmly rooted within a good society, there is no permanent escape from alienation.

    Indeed, I should point out that one of the original goals of liberalism was to eliminate alienation by focusing people’s attention on this world. After all, the presence of transcendence is what causes alienation. This is what Voegelin meant when he spoke about tension (Spannung) and the metaxy (μεταξύ).

  15. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for your comments. What you’re raising is a serious issue for social and Hegelian conservatism. Hegelian conservatism does, in my opinion, error in trying to remove alienation by eliminating transcendence. Hegel’s ideal state reflects only man’s own rational nature and doesn’t point to anything above. Man at last understands himself; he sees that he, the world, and society all share the same spirit, and he feels at home in the world. The social conservatives, on the other hand, always put God as the ground of authority, so–at least in its authoritarian aspects–a social conservative order would maintain a transcendent reference point. On the other hand, social conservatives (myself included) often do underestimate the amount of alienation that might remain even in this case. We do sometimes talk as if our hunger for God would be satisfied by just having fathers to revere and kings to obey. I believe (or, rather, hope) that this is a matter of emphasis rather than error. For a post like this, though, I’ll just end by agreeing that implicit discomfort with transcendence is a potential danger in some of these types of conservatism.

  16. Interesting. I doubt many people have given the issue much thought outside of the “neocons vs. everyone else” commentary we saw in the Bush years.

    I don’t sympathize too much with conservatives these days. All of them are trying to conserve something and unfortunately I think they’re a couple hundred years too late. Burke perhaps had something left to preserve, but contemporary conservatives are grasping at straws.

    Further, I wouldn’t classify any of the Hegelians as being right wing. The idea of perfect progress, whether it leads to monarchy or anarchy, is still part of the left’s arsenal.

    Bonald wrote: “Also to be mentioned in this category, as a deformation, are Leo Strauss and his followers, who absurdly claim that atheism is the true intellectual tradition of the West, contained esoterically in the works of its great thinkers, so that only scholars as clever as the Straussians imagine themselves to be are able to extract it.”

    Strauss is incredibly funny to me. I didn’t get the impression that his project was pro-atheist…but I could be completely off the mark. Anybody who spends their life writing confusingly about how authors are constantly hiding their true thoughts behind confusing writing can’t be easy to pin down.

    I do agree that Tocqueville can’t be considered a man of the right. You’ve correctly pointed out that any conservatism on his part serves a liberal end.

    All in all a very nice summary of conservative thought and a decent attempt to categorize it.

  17. I don’t sympathize too much with conservatives these days. All of them are trying to conserve something and unfortunately I think they’re a couple hundred years too late.

    Yup. It’s valuable to preserve the distinction between “right” and “conservative.” There is very little that is right-wing in the West today, so conservatives are necessarily lefties.

  18. The Old Regime and the Revolution is actually my favorite of Tocqueville’s books. He argues that the Revolution was, in fact, a continuation of a policy of centralization that had been carried out by the Bourbon monarchy for some time. Tocqueville actually has some high praise for the nobility and clergy of the ancien regime, Louis XVI is correctly portrayed as over-indulgent rather than despotic, and the philosophes are treated rather dismissively. All this makes Tocqueville actually sound like a good conservative. However, the main arguments of the pseudoconservative tradition trace back to Democracy in America.

  19. [...] Throne And Altar has a taxonomy of conservative thought. [...]

  20. For the record, Herder was not a conservative in any sense of the word. He was a philosophe of the Left through and through. His elaboration of Nationalism was humanistic and, in his view, a continuation of Enlightenment rationalism and the principle of self-determination. In addition, he supported the French Revolution without ever turning against it like Coleridge, et al. did. He believed in progress, equality, and so on. I find it funny that Nationalism has become so closely associated with the Right when its origins are squarely on the Left. Numerous 19thC conservatives despised it and predicted in would tear Europe apart: Metternich, Goethe, the assassinated Kotzebue. Even Gobineau didn’t like it! Nietzsche is also obvious here. Personally, I find it tiresome and wish Nationalism had remained on the Left, but oh well.

  21. Hello Drieu,

    Thanks for giving the argument that Herder was on the other side. I am very fortunate in my readership; they often have things to teach me. In my claim that Herder is the source of Rightist anti-cosmopolitanism, I may have relied too much on Isaiah Berlin’s writings on the counter-Enlightenment. I have indeed found Berlin to be not always reliable when the subject is someone I know well (e.g. Maistre), but he’s one of the only intellectual historians to seriously look at the writings and influence of non-mainstream characters like Vico and Herder.

  22. In the aftermath of the Revolution, one of the most important French Social Conservatives was Jean-Étienne-Marie Portalis. He was one of the Commissioners, chosen by Napoleon to draw up the Code Civil. Nearly blind, 54, a Provençal from Aix, a commissioner of the Prize Court, Portalis was the “philosopher” of the commission. Coming, as he did, from the ancient “Pays du droit écrit” [The country of the written (i.e. Roman) law], he was a champion of the Roman law and a devout Catholic.

    His philosophy is summed up in his famous dictum that “Good fathers, good husbands, and good sons make good citizens.” This ideal he succeeded, for the most part, in embodying in the Code. It is fair to note that, in this at least, he was supported by his great opponent on the Commission, François-Denis Tronchet, known as the “Nestor of the Aristocracy.” Aged 73, president of the Court of Cassation, Tronchet, who had had a long legal career practicing before the Paris Parlement and had been one of Louis XVI’s defence lawyers, was a staunch advocate of the Northern customary laws.

    Little known outside legal circles, Portalis’s influence for good has been incalculable. At the present day, the clear and unanimous rejection of same-sex marriage by the French courts (and by 153 of its professors of private law at a symposium held in 1999) was in no small part due to his refusal to introduce a formal definition of marriage into the Code, contenting himself with the functional definition that “the chid conceived or born in marriage has the husband for father.” Likewise, his far-sighted inclusion of the ethical principle that “only things in commerce may be the subject of an agreement,” has led the French courts to strike down both surrogacy agreements and the sale and purchase of human gametes.

  23. Hello Michael PS,

    That’s fascinating. I’d never heard of Portalis before. I don’t understand why not having a definition of marriage on the books helped the French reject same-sex marriage, though.

  24. Read Peter Viereck’s “Metapolitics : from Wagner and the German Romantics to Hitler”. Some of his claims are debatable but he was one of the few people to trace the development of Nationalism from its left-wing origins.

    I also like Viereck’s conservative anthologies a lot more than Russell Kirk’s. Viereck was more open to continental thinkers, even though he identified as a Burkean. He also includes names that I find more interesting and dynamic such as Hippolyte Taine, Jacob Burckhardt, Nietzsche, and Jose Ortega y Gasset (who’s more of a right-wing liberal, but still very insightful and pertinent).

  25. I posted this in your Fascism thread, but I’m reposting it here because it’s also germane to a taxonomy of the Right and might be of interest to people who come to this thread:

    Try the “Roots of the Right” series edited by George Steiner decades ago. I’m pretty sure they’re all out-of-print, but you can probably find used copies on the internet or in university libraries.

    The ones you want are:
    Italian Fascisms: from Pareto to Gentile
    Selected Writings of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera
    The French Right: from de Maistre to Maurras

    To buttress these, also pick up Roger Griffin’s “Fascism” anthology, which covers National Socialism as well as some of the minor fascist movements.

    Part of the problem is that there was never a truly unified international Fascist movement, though some attempts were made, and even Italian Fascism embraced a certain “pragmatism” and went through different phases. People also forget that Fascist Italy originally opposed Nazi Germany. It was Mussolini and the Austrofascist Dolfuss who were the main forces preventing the Anschluss. The scholar Renzo De Felice has argued that the Nazi/Fascist alliance was not inevitable but was the result of diplomatic blundering on the part of the French and the British in response to the Italian invasion of Abyssinia.

    I think if someone were to piece together the thought of many of the thinkers who have been labeled fascist, proto-fascist or fellow-travelers there is an interesting philosophy to be made there. For something that gets demonized as a philosophy of brutes, it sure attracted lots of impressive minds.

  26. Thanks! I’ve just found cheap used copies of “The French Right” and “Italian Fascisms” on Amazon, and I’m excited about ordering and reading those.

  27. Portalis insisted on placing the emphasis on how marriage functions in the state, as a public institution, and leaving its character to be deduced from that.

    This enabled him to stress the vertical dimension that would have been difficult to capture in a more descriptive definition. It enabled the great modern jurist, le doyen Jean Carbonnier, commenting on Article 312, to say « le cœur du mariage, ce n’est pas le couple, c’est la présomption de paternité » [“The heart of marriage is not the couple, but the presumption of paternity.”]

    Portalis does deserve to be better known: I love the understated irony of his remark that “”We have too much indulged, in recent times, in changes and reforms; if in matters of institutions and laws the periods of ignorance witness abuses, the periods of philosophy and enlightenment too often witness excesses.” How’s that for a summary of the French Revolution?

  28. Did those books arrive yet? I’d be interested in your thoughts on them. I think you’ll find most of the authors featured are different from the varieties of rightist thought you’ve explored.

  29. Hi Drieu,

    Thanks for asking. I’m about 60 pages into “The French Right”. I’ll put up a book review when I’ve finished it.

  30. By the way, stumbled upon this:

    http://www.mmisi.org/ma/39_03/beum.pdf

    Lots of books/authors there that even I have never encountered.

  31. [...] Vision of Authority Metternich (Svein Sellanraa) – A Genealogy of the Right Bonald – A taxonomy of the Right (addendum) James Kalb – Q&A at 2Blowhards: Parts one, two, and three Lawrence Auster [...]

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