The whole unwhole world of 1953—the Communist world, the Socialist world, the liberal world, the reactionary world—agrees on this: the U.S. is the citadel of conservatism in a tumult of innovation. Yet the label “conservative” is about the last tag that the typical American would think of applying to himself. How explain this contradiction?
Conservatism as a fact and a force never died, and it is now vigorous and growing. But as a conscious and proudly defended outlook on public affairs, as a philosophy of life and government, it was driven underground for a hundred years, laughed out of the schools, driven like an old hag in a gunnysack from the glittering and shifting fashion show of ideas. “The Stupid Party” was what John Stuart Mill called the conservatives a century ago. It stuck.
Russell Kirk has news for most Americans: “Conservatism is something deeper than mere defense of shares and dividends, something nobler than mere dread of what is new.” The American asks: “Is it? And if so, what?” The question has a special interest to a nation which is the reputed champion of a position that has almost dropped out of its own conversation.
Neither Kirk nor any other expounder of conservatism can blueprint the conservative mind or doctrine. Blueprints belong to the radicals, the Utopians, the innovators who drew the plans for new societies in the solitudes of their own minds. The history of conservative thought is found unpackaged, warm with the lives of men, glimpsed by the poets and novelists, hammered out by practical politicians who turned from immediate experience to distill the principles of experience.
Kirk tells his story of the conservative stream with the warmth that belongs to it. Even Americans who do not agree may feel the warmth—and feel, perhaps, the wonder of conservative intuition and prophecy, speaking resonantly across the disappointing decades.
Where did the conservative stream rise? Before history, when experience, as custom, prejudice, and social institution, began to pass from one generation to another. Kirk does not explore the stream’s upper reaches. His subject is conservatism in the modern world, the century and a half dominated by the ideas of the French Revolution, and the infinite, infinitely various get of those ideas.
Kirk begins with Edmund Burke, founder of a great line of British-American conservatives. Son of a Dublin lawyer, devout Anglican, party manager of the Whigs, Burke lived in an England torn and undermined by the philosophy of the French Revolution much as the U.S. in the ‘305 was torn and undermined by the philosophy of the Communist Revolution. In press, Parliament and public opinion, Burke saw signs that Britain was in danger from the doctrines across the Channel. If his fears now seem exaggerated, that impression is perhaps Burke’s greatest achievement. “He succeeded,” says Kirk, “in turning the resolute might of England against French revolutionary energies . . . That real Jacobinism* never has come to Britain or America is in some considerable measure the work of Edmund Burke’s conservative genius.”
His arsenal included no un-British Activities Committee. He went to the bottom of French revolutionary ideas, explained them in terms his countrymen could understand, sharpened his own opposed principles, and expressed them with clarity and passion. Jean Jacques Rousseau, in his naivete, believed that man had been all good in “a state of nature,” and that he was only corrupted by wrong social institutions. Sweep these away, substitute institutions blueprinted by “reason,” and man emerges perfect or, at least, readily perfectible.
Burke saw man in “a state of nature” as a prey to his own evil, violence and greed. Civilization was the process of holding the evil in check by treasuring experience from generation to generation, slowly building upon those advances which seemed in harmony with God’s will as to human order.
“Temporary possessors and life-renters [must not be] unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity,” Burke wrote. “By [the] unprincipled facility of changing the state as often . . . as there are floating fancies or fashions, the whole chain and continuity of the commonwealth would be broken. No one generation could link with another. Men would become little better than the flies of a summer.”
Burke’s conservatism was universal in its application. In one of the most famous of all trials, he prosecuted Warren Hastings for colossal graft and misrule as Britain’s Governor-General of India. But what Burke, the Anglican, detested most in Hastings’ record was the Governor-General’s roughshod trampling of Hindu tradition and religious ceremonial. Burke feared that Hastings, by destroying India’s tradition, might destroy the soul of a civilization.
The Rights of Man
Burke’s conservatism accepted and insisted upon the necessity of change. But change, said Burke, flows from the law of Providence; it should come as the result of “a need generally felt,” and not by ukase based upon abstract theorizing. Conservatives can accept change as a matter of expediency, free of doctrinaire compulsion, because conservatives understand ultimate ends. “Conservatism,” Kirk writes, “never is more admirable than when it accepts changes that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation, and the impetuous Burke, of all men, did most to establish that principle.”
What of the rights of man, which Burke’s erstwhile friend, Tom Paine, was proclaiming from Paris? Burke’s answer, Kirk observes, is pertinent to an age which seriously debates the preposterous extremes of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, including the right to “enjoy the arts” and the right to “the full development of personality.” Each specific right, said Burke, had to be won and specifically established as “prescriptive.” As for more general rights: “Whatever each man can separately do, without trespassing upon others, he has a right to do for himself; and he has a right to all which society . . . can do in his favour. In this partnership all men have equal rights; but not to equal things. He that has but five shillings in the partnership has as good a right to it as he that has 500 pounds . . . but he has not a right to an equal dividend.” A century and a half after Burke, his country was handicapped by a national obsession with equal dividends, “fair shares for all,” the sterile and envious principle of artificial equality.
Majority rule is no more a natural right than equality, Burke held. Government must take pains to represent all sections or interests of a nation, but “possessing the franchise, holding office and entrusting powers to the people—these are questions to be settled upon practical considerations, varying with time, circumstance and the temper of a nation.”
Burke, the great British foe of the French Revolution, had been the great British defender of American independence, which he called “a revolution not made, but prevented.” Later thinkers held that the American Revolution and the French were twins, but Burke saw essential differences. He held that the main drive of the colonists was defense of two great conservative principles: local self-government and traditional prescriptive rights, both transgressed by the innovations of George III.
The American Revolution had, indeed, an anti-conservative side which later waxed under the influence of French revolutionary success. The conservative rearguard action, led by John Adams, was vigorous. Contemporaries and historians denounced Adams as an admirer of aristocracy. He was not. He believed in the inevitability of aristocracy, but not in what he called “aristocracy of stars, garters, ribbons, golden eagles and golden fleeces . . . and hereditary descents.” Adams, who had a wry wit and much experience of practical politics, defined an aristocrat as “every man who can and will influence one man to vote besides himself.” Since this inequality of influence could never be avoided, it would be better to recognize natural leadership, and to use it for social good. At the same time, through checks and balances, Adams urged vigilant control of the swelling ambitions of the natural leaders.
Almost singlehanded, Adams turned back the sentiment for a one-House Congress and a central government of unchecked powers. “My opinion is, and always has been, that absolute power intoxicates alike despots, monarchs, aristocrats and democrats.” Adams led the fight to retain the checks & balances system of the U.S. Constitution, which Kirk calls “the most successful conservative device in the history of the world.”
The Great Subversive
The British and American conservatives held their ground—or much of it—against Jacobinism, but author Kirk points out that Rousseau had intellectual grandchildren more successful in the English-speaking world than his child, the French Revolution. Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), a recluse, knew little of men; but his mind was sparked by rising industrialism. The machine seduced him, and he contemptuously swept aside Burke’s “world of spirit and imagination.” From Bentham to Lippmann, the vocabulary of social and political thought has been dominated by metaphors drawn from the science of mechanics. Quantity replaced quality, and statistics replaced history. Bentham set up new standards of decision: 1) utility —determined by a mechanical weighing of “pains and pleasures,” and 2) absolute power of majorities. John Stuart Mill called Bentham “the great subversive/’ Some hundred-odd years later, Lord Keynes blamed Bentham’s Utilitarianism for paving the way for Marxism. Writes Kirk: “Twentieth century political and judicial ‘realism’ and pragmatism, triumphant now in the Supreme Court of the U.S. and throughout nearly all the world, are derived from Bentham.”
It was to the spirit of Bentham that the perceptive Alexis de Tocqueville (whom Kirk calls “the best friend democracy ever had”) offered a conservative misgiving in 1840. “I think,” wrote De Tocqueville, “that the species of oppression by which democratic nations are menaced is unlike anything that ever before existed in the world . . . The first thing that strikes the observation is an innumerable multitude of men, all equal and all alike, incessantly endeavoring to procure the petty and paltry pleasures with which they glut their lives . . . Above this race of men stands a [government] which takes upon itself alone to secure their gratifications and to watch over their fate. That power is absolute, minute, regular, provident and mild . . . Thus it every day renders the exercise of the free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within a narrower range, and gradually robs a man of all the uses of himself. The principle of equality has prepared men for these things; it has predisposed them to endure them and often to look on them as benefits.”
This is long-range prophecy, gently put. At shorter range, George Orwell has described the drab brutality of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and of the Animal Farm, where “all animals are equal” but, as John Adams foresaw, inevitably “some are more equal than others.”
The Rear-Guard Action
After Bentham, Marx—and the 19th century was marked by the long period of conservative decline. Through it, the conservatives maintained their rear-guard action: Coleridge, brilliantly insisting that society was losing its soul because it was fascinated by means, forgetful of ends; (“Men, I think, ought to be weighed, not counted. Their worth ought to be the final estimate of their value.”) Sir Walter Scott, defending Scotland’s ancient laws against Bentham’s passion for reform, warning that local tradition could not be erased without damage, writing the Waverley Novels as tracts for conservatism, as reminders of the moral debt that the present owed to principles of liberty and order won by the past; Disraeli, the supple and imaginative politician, yielding with brilliant grace to necessary change, thwarting the mechanical innovators.
In the U.S., a more lurid struggle was going on. John Randolph, pain-ridden, drink-ridden, drug-ridden, and yet the clearest head in Congress, was fighting for local rights against the anti-conservative growth of central power. John C. Calhoun, quenching his own burning ambition, was busy on his unpopular formulation of minority rights against “the tyranny of majorities.” Nathaniel Hawthorne was throwing his almost obsessive consciousness of sin into the bland and smiling face of the growing optimism of his age.
The Tragic Marriage
In Hawthorne’s industrial New England. Bentham was triumphant, although never wholly so. The ostensible home of U.S. conservatism moved to the rural South, there to meet its worst defeat. Calhoun had spoken in principle for all minorities, but in practice he spoke for the slaveholding interest. In dealing with the tragic union of U.S. conservatism and slavery, Russell Kirk, a bold writer, does not firmly grasp his nettle. He sidles away, with a glancing blow at the abolitionist innovators. He had a better case than he makes.
On its monstrous scale, in its time, U.S. chattel slavery was not a conservative institution. Superficially a throwback, it was more truly an innovation, a creature of expediency, begot by the cotton gin on anti-conservative ideas of economic determination. The ante-bellum South prattled Calhoun’s words, wallowed in Walter Scott, spoke the noble language of local rights and traditions. But it acted, in the crisis, out of the motives of the pocketbook, according to the way Bentham and Marx said men must act.
Years after Appomattox a simple, honest and superlatively skillful horse soldier, General Nathan Bedford (“Get thar fustest”) Forrest, attended a meeting of Confederate veterans. He listened to typical Southern oratory (Calhoun’s principles and Scott’s language) on the Lost Cause. Hardly a word was said about slavery. Forrest, ill at ease amid hypocrisy, rose to say that if he hadn’t thought he was fighting to keep his niggers, and other folks’ niggers, he never would have gone to war in the first place. Forrest was interested in Sambo, not Ivanhoe. The sentiment was not pretty, but at least it was not fake conservatism.
But when the slave power was crushed, conservatism, in mismated union with it, was stricken—and for decades thereafter in the U.S. the central power swelled and the conservative principle languished. Two Thinkers, Two Wars. Kirk thanks the “coquetry of history and the mystery of Providence” for the rising influence in the mid-1920s of two conservative philosophers, Harvard’s Irving Babbitt and Princeton’s Paul Elmer More. By the time they wrote, liberal Utilitarianism had so completely infected the U.S. that many of Burke’s predictions were visibly true. Said Babbitt: “We are trying to make, not the Ten Commandments, but humanitarianism work—and it is not working . . . The public is . . . largely composed of people who have set up sympathy for the underdog as a substitute for all the other virtues.” The basis of the “new ethics,” he wrote, is “the assumption that the significant struggle between good & evil is not in the individual but in society.”
Princeton’s More sensed a people so interested in innovation and change that they were losing contact with the past, like a ship in a thickening fog which blots out “the far-flashing lights of the horizon . . . until we move forward through a sullen obscurity, unaware of any other traveler upon that sea, save when through the fog the sound of a threatening alarm beats upon the ear.”
More potent than two (or two thousand) philosophers was the influence of two world wars, especially the second, in breaking the confident march of the various schools of anti-conservative thought. When a majority of one of the most advanced nations on earth voted Hitler into power, it became at least questionable that “the voice of the people is the voice of God.” When the “progressive” drift toward a strong central state, eating away at local and other independent institutions, reached its climax in totalitarianism, men began to be reminded of the ‘virtue in complex, balanced societies. Facing Belsen and Buchenwald and the Communist slave labor camps, it was hardly possible to believe that progress since the French Revolution had purged men of evil.
Burke had clearly foreseen Bonaparte in the principles of the French Revolution, and it is no stretch of partisan imagination to say that he had foreseen Stalin and Hitler, too. Men of 1953, living in the shadow of lost illusions, will find the conservative tradition more interesting than it seemed 40 years ago.
Wrestling with a definition of conservatism, Kirk identifies six “canons of thought” by which it may be recognized. They are:
“Belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty which links great and obscure, living and dead. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.
“Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of traditional life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and equalitarianism and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.
“Conviction that the only true equality is moral equality, that all attempts to extend equality to economics and politics, if enforced by positive legislation, lead to despair, and that civilized society requires order and classes.
“Persuasion that property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic progress.
“Faith in what conservatives call ‘prescription’—the accumulation of ‘traditions and sound prejudice,’ i.e., common sense.
“Recognition that change and reform are not the same things, and that ‘innovation is a devouring conflagration more often than it is a torch of progress.’”
Kirk’s six canons suggest an appraisal of his book couched appropriately in conservative understatement: it has an interest that is not mainly antiquarian.
*The French Revolution’s famous Jacobin club (boss: Robespierre) took its name from its address in the Rue St. Jacques.