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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.