Thomas Molnar

Thomas Molnar may have been, as far as I know, the last true reactionary–that is, an authoritarian conservative in the Bonald-Maistre tradition–in academia.  His recent death should lead us to reflect on the current state of the traditionalist movement.  Every large-scale movement or social body needs an intellectual elite.  We conservatives need people who argue our case to the general public, but that’s not all we need.  We also need some people who withdraw from the business of “selling” belief to the business of ernestly studying them.  There is the work of refining and systematizing traditionalism, the work of assimilating new facts into the existing paradigm, and the work of addressing philosophical objections to our beliefs.  To do their job properly, these people must worry only about consistency and truth; they shouldn’t worry about making traditionalism appear moderate or nice to the general public, and they shouldn’t be worried about making or breaking alliances with other political creeds.  Traditionally, it was university professors like Molnar who did this sort of intellectual work.  Academia is uniquely suited to this sort of thing.  Today, it seems that the main intellectual work in the traditionalist movement is being done on weblogs, this one being a modest example.  I very much doubt that we’ll be able to replace trained, full-time academics.

As an example of this, consider Molnar’s 1994 article The Liberal Hegemony: the Rise of Civil Society, which as just come to my attention through the Tory Anarchist weblog.  Molnar begins with the traditional division (found in many, many societies) between the warrior/ruling class, the priestly class, and the artisan/peasant/tradesman class which we now call civil society.  He points out that, until recently, only the first two classes had a definite corporate organization, and only they had ideologies to legitimate their power.  The main fact of modern times, according to Molnar, is the rise of the third estate to political hegemony, with liberalism being the ideology it has used to legitimate its rule.  The first two classes, represented by state and church, have largely been reduced to the playthings of civil society.  Civil society has disempowered Church and State by demanding that they be separate, and neither a secular State nor a disestablished Church has the power to stand up to civil society’s forces of money and pleasure.  The essay ends with a hope that the three estates may one day find their proper balance.

As Daniel McCarthy (the Tory Anarchist) realizes, it seems like Molnar didn’t get the memo that we conservatives are supposed to be selling ourselves as defenders of civil society against the encroaching State.  Actually, I think there’s some truth to the latter view as well, but it’s also true that a main reason the current crop of intellectual conservatives are pushing Red Toryism rather than Molnar’s throne-and-altar vision is that the former is easier to sell to voters.  It’s conservatism “that can win again”.  Very few conservatives are sufficiently detached to be worried only about what is true, not about what voters might accept.  Thomas Molnar was one of the few, and for that I’ll miss him.

2 Responses

  1. Perhaps what American conservatism needs is another world war or iron curtain to send us more European refugees like Molnar. Not that I wish more misery on Europe, but their loss was certainly our gain, and I believe we Americans will always need transfusions of European ideas at regular intervals.

  2. Come to think of it, we Americans don’t seem to be very good at producing our own traditionalist thinkers. Kind of embarrassing, given our reputation as the most conservative country on Earth.

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