Reading the French Right: a dual book review

The French Right:  from de Maistre to Maurras, edited and introduced by J.S. McClelland

Critics of the Enlightenment:  readings in the French counter-revolutionary tradition, edited and translated by Christopher Olaf Blum

These are two good anthologies of writings by leaders of the French counter-revolutionary movement.  They compliment each other very well; the editors of each volume had very different ideas about the significance of the French Right.  Critics of the Enlightenment (hereafter CotE) has a forward by Philippe Beneton, who takes the standard line that the French Right were immoderate and inferior copies of Burke.  He misrepresents the French reactionaries’ beliefs, saying they rejected reason and based themselves solely on French tradition, and then proceeds to critique those beliefs.  I seriously wonder if he even read the book he was forwarding, because none of the authors therein make such an argument, and Le Play at least claimed to derive his conclusions from systematic observation.  Blum in his introduction makes it clear that he sees the French Right’s critique of individualism as culminating in Catholic social teaching, and it is a fact that Pope Leo XIII was strongly influenced by them.  The writers Blum chose are all Catholics (although Le Play spend much of his adult like outside of the Church before returning to the faith) and they are very focused on economic issues, culminating in la Tour du Pin’s vision of a Catholic Corporate State.

McClelland is uninterested in Catholicism, and he seems to regard conservatism as a defunct ideology, interesting only because it was one of the currents of thought that coalesced into fascism.  The entire importance of the French Right, for him, as a cause of Vichy France.  Thus, his introduction to every speaker seems to end with “…which had strong echos in Vichy”.  (Incidentally, if the French Right is only interesting as a cause of Vichy, then it must be much less interesting than the German army.)  Like Beneton, he thinks the French Right rejected universal reason, and again this can be disproved by the very writings he’s collected.  Maurras says quite clearly that he rejects the philosophes not just because they used abstract principles and ignored French particularities, but that the abstract principles they used are wrong even on the abstract level.  The French Right (hereafter TFR) and CotE only overlap with one writer:  de Maistre.  Characteristically, Blum includes passages from On the Pope, and McClelland takes his musings on war from the Saint Petersburg Dialogues.  The writers in TFR are overwhelmingly nonCatholic.  It would seem that these books show two distinct counter-revolutionary traditions; let us call them the “Catholic” wing and the “positivist” wing of the counterrevolution, and let us recall that, before the Vatican’s foolish condemnation of Action Francaise, they were allied.

Several reoccuring themes in CotE deserver note.  First, there is much effort on the Catholic side to construct a useable past, a good core of the Ancien Regime underneath the abuses that deserves to be preserved or resurrected.  I don’t mean that they falsify history, any more than the imposition of a single narrative on a nation’s history must be a falsification; I mean that they felt a need to counter the Enlightenment narrative of a past of nothing but ignorance and oppression brought to an end by the glorious rule of revolutionaries.  Authors identify what they see as key aspects of the ancient French constitution.  For Maistre, it is theocracy, and was even before the French became Christian.  For Bonald, it is familism:  the state regards families rather than individuals.  A familiy itself holds a title of nobility, and such titles are (or rather should have been) tied to duties.  Le Play also points to the family, but to its independence.  The norm is that each family has a separate house.  (He congratulates the West on not falling into the shame of rental apartment buildings.)  He also credits the West with hitting the sweet spot in family inheritance with the so-called “stem family”, in which family patrimonies are preserved by inheritance going to one brother, while other brothers make their own way, giving them a spur to innovation while leaving a family support mechanism they can come back to.  For Keller and la Tour du Pin, it is the medieval corporate structure, in which every way of life had a publicly and ecclesiastically sanctioned organization to give it voice and order, that should inspire us.

Eugene Genovese credited American Southern conservatives with giving due consideration to the kind of economic base they would need to support the traditional society they wanted.  In this, he says they were unlike modern conservatives.  The French Right certainly also deserves credit for its attention to such basic issues.  For Bonald and Le Play, the attention was on preserving France’s agrarian way of life, and primogeniture as part of that life.  By the time of Keller and la Tour du Pin, this was apparently a lost cause, and they decided that the pressing task was to rescue the urban prolitariate.  Their proposed associations/corporations would be more like medieval guilds than modern labor unions in that they would be mandatory across a trade, they would set quality and training standards, they would have social and mutual-help functions, and they would have a part in the government.

Most of the space in TFR is given over to Barres and Maurras.  Of all the writers included, Barres comes closest, in his writings on the Dreyfus Affair, to the anti-universalism that supposedly drives the French Right.  He does think that the intellectuals’ commitment to Kantian universalism leads them to ignore the need to protect the French nation’s interests and character.  I expect he was right that very few Dreyfusards gave a fig whether Dreyfus was innocent or guilty; they just saw in the case an opportunity to humiliate the nation, eviscerate the army, and persecute the Church.  Barres makes it clear that he himself doesn’t care.  He would rather Dreyfus had never been tried, or that the case had never been revisited; either would be better than letting the nation tear itself up about it.

The exerpts from Maurras in TFR are worth whatever you pay for the book in itself.  Especially good is “Dictator and King”, his royalist manifesto.  A healthy constitution, Maurras says, should have authority at the top and freedom at the bottom, but the Third Republic had reversed this, with a centralized bureaucratic despotism controling every aspect of a citizen’s life, while at the highest level of government is a parliamentary anarchy where no one thinks past the next election.  In his ideal order, citizens would govern most of their own affairs through local associations, while a strong king would revitalize the army, suppress usury, and look to the common good.

The selections are not of uniformly high quality.  In CotE, Chateaubriand’s contribution and half of Bonalds’, are rather forgettable.  In TFR, we have Drumont’s rant against the Jews, which combines some reasonable criticisms that Rightest still make against this people with bizarre claims, such as that Jew’s have a particular stink.  Georges Sorel is included, even though he was a far-Left wacko, presumably because his writings on violence and the social myth sounded fascist to the editor.

The counter-revolutionaries made some solid points, but they seem to have overstated their case.  Nearly to a man, they predicted that liberal rule would bring the French nation, and the other nations of the West, to total ruin.  France would be prey to foreign powers.  The middle class would disappear and the working class be immiserated to the point of destitution.  This obviously hasn’t happened (although Keller’s prediction that low-paid Chinese would become the world’s workforce has come disturbingly close).  Liberalism is obviously not as suicidal as the counter-revolution imagined.  It did prove able to counter foreign threats–indeed, rival Leftist powers, the USA and USSR, were able to divide the world between them in 1945–and it proved able to check capitalism’s worst excesses, partly by adopting some of the measures recommended in CotE.  Today, many reactionaries are still predicting liberalism’s imminant self-destruction.  We should learn a lesson from past generations and avoid predictions that will someday make us look foolish.

Every conservative should read these books.  It is important for us to reclaim our past, a past that the mainstream has forgotten and the Burkeans have deliberately sidelined.  Conservatives should know that it is not true that we have failed to critique liberal economic systems or to pose our alternatives.  We perhaps cannot adopt corporatism wholesale–economic policy must be reevaluated each generation because of changing circumstances–but we do have examples of how conservatives have reasoned about these issues in the past.  Conservatives should know how untrue is the picture painted by hostile historians (including Catholic ones) of Charles Maurras, who was neither an irrationalist, nor a lunatic, nor an aspiring tyrant.  One will not find here a complete exposition of the conservative philosophy, for the reason that no one (including Burke) has yet produced such a thing.  As I’ve said before, the Right has yet to produce its equivalent to John Rawls.  That can’t happen, though, until all the materials that must go into such a system have been gathered up, and the input of the French Right will be indispensible.

Climate change: do we have a dog in this fight?

The debate basically comes down to two questions:

  1. What is the Earth’s climate sensitivity?  Will doubling CO2 increase temperatures by 1 degree or 5 degrees?
  2. How do the costs of reducing carbon emissions compare with the costs of just adjusting to a new temperature?

Now, it seems clear to me that our ideology–whatever it was we decided to call it–doesn’t have a stake in the answers to these questions.  Of course, we do have such a stake, since we must live on the Earth and in the world economy, but we don’t have a stake as ideologues.  If the climate is very sensitive, that doesn’t in any way call into question our beliefs:  that monarchy is the best form of government, that patriarchy is the normative form of family life, etc.  The only way that our ideology might come into play is that the meaning of the word “costs” in the second question might be different for us.  I’ve argued before, though, that our priorities would actually make us more inclined to trade economic growth for climate stability than someone who didn’t value regional cultures the way we do.  That’s not to say that we wouldn’t ever decide that the price of this stability is too high, only that our commitments make us value it more rather than less.

I have heard one argument for why conservatives, as conservatives, should distrust the movement to prevent anthropogenic alterations to the climate.  It’s that this is going to end up being used as a justification to impose a socialist world-state on us, an idea that most liberals would like anyway, but something that would abhor us.  Right now, though, this is a hypothetical issue, because no measures that are really being considered to curb carbon emissions come anywhere near world socialism.  A carbon tax, for example, may or may not be a good idea, but I don’t see how it would turn the economy over to the government.

Similarly, it’s possible that global warming could serve as an excuse for the UN to push anti-natalism, contraception, and abortion on the third-world to get rid of future unwanted carbon-emitters.  Some nuts are already using it this way.  However, no one near positions of power, no matter how far on the Left, is pushing this.  If the UN decides to start forcefully sterilizing African women (which they may be doing already as far as I know–I wouldn’t put anything past those devils), we should certainly fight that.  But it would be crazy to base our case on a scientific claim about that atmosphere that might turn out to be wrong.

I realize, however, that many of my readers disagree with me on this.  You think that this is an issue on which we must take a stand.  I would like to hear your reasons for this, and I would be grateful if you would share them.

More on thought bubbles

Liberals are worried about them too.

I notice, here and in other writings by liberals on this subject, that their concern is with large-scale effects.  What will cognitive segregation do to the country?  How will democracy be able to operate?  Will democracy provide a corrective to this effect, as the above article hopes?  These are good questions, but I tend to be more focused on my own case.  I’ve seen how totally wrongheaded the majority is in its knowledge of conservatives and Roman Catholics.  How do I avoid misjudging other groups this grievously?

The most obvious way is to find the best writings of the other sides and give them a sympathetic reading.  My father-in-law, a liberal, sometimes encourages me to read newspaper editorials.  This is just too painful, though.  I don’t mind having my beliefs challenged, but that’s now what happens.  My beliefs just get insulted.  Okay, New York Times, I get it:  all Catholics are child molesters, and all conservatives are Nazis.  Fuck you.

It seems like listening to the other side shouldn’t have to be so painful.  I have read excellent noncombative books where I’ve seen others explain their belief systems:  Islam and the Destiny of Man by Gai Eton, The Orthodox Church by Timothy Ware, and even A Theory of Justice, for that matter.  These sorts of books are very valuable to sympathetically curious outsiders.  They’re also hard to find, particularly for me, being a Catholic.  It seems that just about every other religion and ideology puffs itself up by disparaging us.  I know I should be able to put that aside and just try to extract valuable information, but as I get older, my fuse gets shorter, the sensation of anger gets more unpleasant, and the temptation to avoid it gets stronger.  On the other hand, I don’t think that I can just trust people on “my side” to explain other belief systems to me.  That’s no substitute for a genuine encounter with other positions.

I have been toying with the idea of doing something for my opponents who may be in an analogous situation.  It might be useful to write a nonpolemical introduction to conservatism:  “Conservatism for Liberals”, if you will.  The idea is that I explain what we believe but don’t push it and don’t attack other beliefs.  Then a liberal could read this without any unpleasant rise in blood pressure and come out of it knowing a bit about what his enemies actually believe and what motivates us.  I’m probably not the person, though.  I’ve obviously staked out my position on the fringe, and no one not already on the far Right would think me a reasonable guide to anything.

What books have you read that managed to explain a rival belief system without pissing you off?

Borrowed opinions

We usually think it a sign of intellectual laziness for a man to passively absorb his beliefs from his comrades.  Even when someone has proved a reliable guide on one subject, that doesn’t mean we should blindly trust him on others.  But then there’s the dilemma that I’ve brought up often before:  democracy asks us to have an opinion on every issue, and very few of us have the time or intelligence to think through each issue independently.  We prefer to think through a few issues that we care most about, choose our political allegiances accordingly, and then remain agnostic on questions where we have not earned the right to opine.

Even this proves difficult to do.  When one chooses a political team, this usually affects what periodicals one reads and which writers one thinks trustworthy.  It affects what arguments you are more often exposed to.  So, for example, a man may become a conservative over abortion and not care a bit about gun rights.  But once he starts reading, or trusting, conservative journals more than liberal ones, he’s going to see more anti-gun control arguments than pro-gun control arguments.  His beliefs on the issue will drift, especially if he doesn’t give this issue much conscious thought.

Back when I was more-or-less a neoconservative, I read lots of smart neocon publications–or at least they seemed smart to me at the time.  I kept running across pro-free trade articles, and I more-or-less assumed that free trade was the intelligent position to take.  Then I broke with the neocons over philosophical issues that had nothing to do with foreign trade.  I kept reading their journals for a while, but eventually it got too frustrating, because they kept missing (what I now take to be) the point.  I still check them out occassionally, but only in the same way that I’ll check out a liberal author (usually through Arts and Letters Daily)–as someone who might have something interesting to say, but who has alien commitments and should not be trusted.  Now that the paleos were my team, I started seeing more protectionist arguments, and now I lean protectionist.

Now, I have some defense for this.  A big difference between the neos and the paleos is the latter’s commitment to the integrity of regional communities.  A degree of economic independence can easily seem to be part of that.  So my molding extraneous beliefs to fit my new “team” had some justification.  Still, it kind of bothers me.

Reading the counter-revolutionaries

The contemporary Right has not done much to rescue the great French counter-revolutionaries from obscurity.  In fact, they’re done more harm than good by promoting the impression that the French Right was just poorly recycled Burke.  The Anglo-American reactionary who suspects this is not true suffers a double handicap.  First, little of the works of continental reactionaries has been translated into English.  (Why bother?  We’re so convinced that Burke already said it all, said it first, and said it better.)  Second, there is no guide to this tradition to help the newcomer, in the way that The Conservative Mind helps one immerse oneself in the Burkean tradition.

A nice list of English translations of counter-revolutionary writings is given at Ius Honorarium (thanks to Stephen for pointing this out to me).  This is a good website, by the way, although the author is, unfortunately, rather hostile to me.  One can find one-page reviews of some of these books of many of these books at my “book reviews:  political theory” page.  Lots of information about the counter-revolutionaries and their beliefs can also be found at Reggie’s The Counter-Enlightenment.

There are two good anthologies of French counter-revolutionary thinking.  First, there’s The French Right from the Roots of the Right series.  I’m very grateful to Drieu for pointing me to this book, which I’ve just finished.  Although starting with de Maistre, it focuses on non-Catholic, positivist thinkers.  Best of all, it’s got a hundred pages of Maurras’ writings, and that’s something that’s hard to find in translation.  Second, there’s Critics of the Enlightenment, edited and translated by Christopher Olaf Blum.  This collection nicely complements the first by focusing on Catholic figures, from Chateaubriand to La Tour du Pin.  I first read this book a couple of years ago and I could have sworn that I wrote a review of it, but when Alcestiseshtemoa pointed me to it again a few weeks ago, I checked, and it looks like I must have imagined that review.  Sometime in the next week, I plan to put out a dual review of both books.  The pictures they paint of the counter-revolution differ in interesting ways.

Conservative, traditionalist, reactionary, or authoritarian?

I have a question for readers who are ideologically sympathetic to this blog:  what word would you use to describe our beliefs?  I’ve struggled with this since I started this blog a couple of years ago.  Describing my beliefs in a four-page essay is one thing; picking a single word to designate them is another.  The trouble is that the four main possibilities–“conservative”, “traditionalist”, “reactionary”, and “authoritarian” are all to some extent polluted in current discourse.  They all have associations that will generate confusion.

  1. Conservative“:  I use this one a lot, but it has a lot of drawbacks.  It’s very vague, indicative more of a preserving instinct than a distinct set of beliefs.  And it’s what mainstream pseudoconservatives call themselves.  I sometimes get comments asking me why I want to “conserve” the current order when I disagree with just about everything in it.  They are right to ask.  An outside observer hearing what I want to do to the social order would be more likely to describe it with words like “overthrow and replace” than “conserve”.
  2. Traditionalist“:  I sometimes prepend this to “conservative” to mean “real conservative”, but this is a bit of an abuse, because “traditionalist” already has a more precise meaning.  It means someone who thinks practical public reason should be based on tradition and prudence rather than abstract reason.  I have defended tradition on this blog, but tradition holds a much smaller place in my belief system than it did for a real traditionalist like Russell Kirk.  It’s not a major source of knowledge for me; I don’t hold any of my major beliefs on its authority.  What’s more, I don’t think the appeal to tradition is a good direction for conservatism to be moving toward.  If the reason to follow tradition is merely prudential–i.e. that chucking the cumulative experience of past generations is foolhardy–then it is easily dismissed by appeal to the newness of modern circumstances.  If traditional gender roles are just a matter of practicality, why shouldn’t guns and baby formula cause us to reevaluate them?  If tradition is normative, it must be so because of a precept of natural law.  But then we’re better off just appealing to natural law directly on questions of justice, family, economics, and war.  Finally, traditionalism seems to be something of a modern innovation.  I don’t remember Thomas Aquinas or Dante saying anything about it.
  3. Reactionary“:  The thing I like best about this word is that it’s already considered derogatory.  Nobody can say that I’m hiding my true beliefs behind a respectable label.  There’s something pleasantly bold about owning and redeeming an insult.  And nobody doubts that “reactionary” means “hard-core right-wing”, which we certainly are around here.  So I have used that word for myself and those like me, and I will continue to do so.  My one reservation is that the word “reactionary” highlights a vice in people of my disposition that I’m trying to overcome, namely the tendency to define ourselves by what we’re against rather than by what we’re for.  Our books all have titles like “The Unspeakably Perverse Evil of Liberalism and Why All Liberals are Idiots”.  I’d rather move away from that, and I hope other reactionaries will too.  Our efforts should be toward describing the elements of a good social order rather than toward cursing this one.  Liberals who visit this site should find themselves challenged but not insulted.  This site hasn’t always lived up to that, but I hope that’s the direction it’s moving in.
  4. Authoritarian“:  It’s got this going for it:  nobody else in the world is calling himself an authoritarian.  If I take this word for myself, I can pretty much fit it to my beliefs, because nobody will be contesting me for it.  And overall, “authoritarian” is the best description of the orientation of this blog.  It is positive–it points towards what it is that this blog promotes and defends.  Authority, as Roger Scruton noted long before I did, is conservatism’s ultimate principle–authority in the family, the Church, and the State.  This word certainly carries risks.  Most people think it means “the slightly less extreme version of totalitarianism” or at the very best “lawless and unprincipled government”.  Sometimes it also implies a craving for centralized decision making–an absurd connotation given the localist opinions of undoubted authoritarians like Charles Maurras and myself.  These misunderstandings, however, are pedagogically fruitful ones.  If I can explain to someone why the Soviet Union was not authoritarian, for example, he will come away with a stronger grasp of my core principle.

So, I think the conclusion is that I am an authoritarian, but the branch of conservatism of which I am a part is reactionary conservatism.  I’d like to hear what other people are calling themselves, though.

Bring back the Index!

I’d like to second this comment by JMSmith:

We have a duty to defend holy things and should not confuse forgiveness with simple cowardice. Our best weapon is the economic boycott. It got us the Production Code back in 1930. The laity are not nearly as well disciplined now as then, but it doesn’t take vast numbers to effect change. What is wanting, as always, is leadership, beginning with revival of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.