Author’s Note: This essay—translated from the original Polish—is an excellent summary of Henryk Krzeczkowski’s definition of conservatism. Exoterically, it is a rumination about two conservative Men of Letters, Evelyn Waugh and Stanisław “Cat” Mackiewicz*, who found themselves taking opposing views during World War II—the first uncompromisingly against Nazi Germany, the second willing to compromise with Nazi Germany. Esoterically, it is actually a rumination about three conservative Men of Letters; the third (although not mentioned overtly) is the author himself, Henryk Krzeczkowski, the founder of post-war Polish conservatism who compromised with Soviet Russia, fought in Stalin’s army, and felt that this compromise was conservative. The fact that all three men shared a similar conservative disposition, but acted in such radically different ways, is the pretext for a consideration by Henryk Krzeczkowski of the definition of conservatism in both theory and practice. —Peter Strzelecki Rieth
I do not hide my conservative sympathies, thus I am from time to time made the subject of a minor inquisition which demands to know the precise definition of conservatism as a style of thought, action and behavior—all in as brief a form as possible. I am incapable of obliging such requests, and I find them to be nonsensical. For in my view, the chief charm of conservatism rests in the fact that while it is easy to recognize a conservative, conservatism itself is utterly beyond the grasp of academic categorizers. If my inquisitors corner me, I slip out of their trap by way of an anecdote or a parable.
In 1954, a certain academic journal in Finland titled “Neuphilologische Mitteilungen” published a work by the respected English philologist, Professor Alan Ross of the University of Birmingham “on the linguistic indicators of Class in the contemporary English language.” The basis of Professor Ross’s study and his subsequent analysis was the belief in the capacity of science to demonstrate that the last nation on Earth which accepted, respected and cultivated class differences were the English; that the “class system in England is basically composed of three parts: the lower class, the middle class and the upper class” and that “the upper class is distinguished from the other two classes solely on the basis of their language.” Believing all of this, our dear professor had collected an imposing amount of vocabulary and phrases, all of them supposedly characteristic of a real gentleman, while at the same time collecting a separate amount of vocabulary and phrases the use of which would automatically disqualify a man from being a gentleman. This entire study would no doubt have suffered the fate of similar works and remained a secret known only to the philological-sociological clan, except that Professor Ross was tempted by the Devil towards the sin of Pride. The professor went and blabbed about his findings to a certain mischievous English writer possessed of a wry sense of humor, one Nancy Mitford, herself most certainly a member of the upper class. Nancy Mitford, in her own words, found herself squealing with amazement and ran immediately to tell the news of the Professor’s findings to the far more humorous and mischievous Evelyn Waugh, who specialized in studying and describing the English upper classes.
The Editor of the excellent English journal “Encounter,” a poet by the name of Stephan Spender, convinced both of the aforementioned writers to compose a commentary to Professor Ross’s study, and suddenly – something which began as a rather casual joke ended up having far more serious consequences. The issue of the magazine with the commentary on Professor Ross’s study sold like hotcakes; it was necessary to print more editions. “Encounter” gained a host of new readers and subscribers and managed to alleviate itself of certain financial difficulties. The clever publisher went on to put out a “book” consisting of the newly written material and made a pretty penny. For months, discussions raged about what was “U” and what was “Non-U” (“U” being “Upper Class”, thus proper and “Non-U” being “Non-Upper-Class”, thus improper according to professor Ross). The conclusions from this entire little story were as follows: all Englishmen are indeed passionately interested in the matter of class divisions, each of them considers himself an expert on the subject of the upper class, and everyone agrees that the upper classes have their own language. Nevertheless, all efforts to compose a dictionary of upper class terms failed miserably, because every single Englishman has a completely different opinion about which words should and should not find their way into such a dictionary. The Moral of the story is this: of a gentleman it is only possible to say this much – we know what he does not do, and what he cannot do, we do not, however, have the faintest idea about what he does nor about what he is free to do. Yet, this was known to us all along. Let us take one example. All of us know that a drunken gentleman may say many strange things, he might drone on like a bore, or he might wane romantically just like any old fellow who happened to have had a bit too much to drink, but a gentleman is always recognizable by virtue of the fact that under the influence of alcohol he is never aggressive nor does he start fights.
The Moral of this story is important because it is possible to generalize this Moral further still. I tend to stubbornly insist that human behavior and human dispositions can only be identified through the use of negative distinctions. After all, even if we are talking about our well known and closest neighbor, we really only know with some certainty what he does not do and would probably never do. The same can be said for entire categories, layers and classes of men. Allow me then—at the risk of aggravating the Pharisees amongst us—to add that this sort of negative definition is perhaps the most handy description available to us of a conservative disposition.
Of conservatism as a way of being, of thinking and of acting there are volumes of theoretical works. Yet if we seek out a faithful image of a conservative which accords with our sentiments then we can only find such characters in literature, or perhaps in journals, or in collected letters, documents. Upon familiarizing ourselves with such material, we learn about what the protagonist has done and can safely conclude what he did not do and would not do under any circumstance. Because it is almost impossible to define conservatism in pseudo-scientific formulas, it is possible that conservatism is out of fashion in our scientific age. Every other disposition except conservatism can easily find its way into sociological surveys and then be safely filed away and categorized by reference to certain programs or dogmas. Only conservatism explodes sociological pretenses on account of its rich diversity of incarnate manifestations. Only conservatism leads the academic pedants into fits of blind rage precisely because conservatism is at once so very obvious and easy to observe but still impossible to grasp. Only conservatism is so out of time, so laughable—yet so hard to laugh at when witnessed in the flesh. I recall to mind when the canny Polish magazine “Przekrój” tried, years ago, to make fun of conservatives by personifying them in the character of August Bęcwalski, and before the magazine’s editors could do anything about it, this fat caricature of a conservative had become one of their readership’s most beloved characters on account of his good and kind spirit.
In point of fact, I am not at all sure whether conservatism is really out of fashion? The popularity of the works of writers like Stanisław “Cat” Mackiewicz and Evelyn Waugh seems to testify otherwise. Both men are rather ostentatious in the exposition of their conservative phobias and sympathies. No better testimony to how popular these writers are can be found than the mere fact that despite this being the tenth anniversary of their deaths, no grand “re-prints” of their works have been necessary. If their books were not constantly read year in and year out, if their books had been shelf-warmers, if lay readers did not buy up all of their books with great enthusiasm, it is a safe bet that literary critics would have by now published an avalanche of “tenth anniversary” essays. And here we are; met by total silence—with the one exception of a fine book penned by Jerzy Jaruzelski; Mackiewicz & Conservatives (published by Czytelnik, 1976).
That I place Waugh and Mackiewicz together is not an accident. They are linked, in my opinion, by distinct similarities and no less by important differences. Both represent rather extreme varieties of conservative thought; extremes which are characteristic of Men of Letters who are far less slaves to the necessities of their times than men of practical action tend to be.
When the two men died in 1966, they were almost peers; in any case we can say with certainty that they were of the same generation. Still, the seven years separating their birthdays (Mackiewicz 1896, Waugh 1903) were a chasm. In 1917, the fourteen year old Evelyn was being driven to school by his father. The twenty year old Mackiewicz was imprisoned in the Warsaw Citadel because he was a member of the Polish Military Organization. Both men were born into wealthy middle class families. Although both of them could defer to their aristocratic titles, they were reluctant to do so, most likely because their titles were not grand enough to satisfy their subsequent tastes. “What of it,” Evelyn Waugh would later lament, “that my ancestor is the great lawyer Henry, Lord Cockburn, since he only became a Lord on account of his excellent works? I would rather be related to a completely useless Lord.” As for the Mackiewicz family; yes, they were indeed an excellent aristocratic family, but they were no one special when compared to the beloved Radziwił family.
Our heroes are also brought nearer together on account of the unconventional nature of the choices they made in life. “In those times,” writes Jaruzelski, “young men from such families sought to join revolutionary movements, radical and leftist.” Both Men of Letters concluded very early on in life, without any hesitation, that their hearts were not on the left. It is possible that some compensating mechanisms influenced this decision; not so much psychological, but rather philosophical. Their conservatism may well have been their answer to a world-reality which insulted their sense of order, of rectitude, and finally of justice. They were both realists. They did not believe in the possibility of reversing or even stopping history, and so they chose to live by the pen, forsaking the empirical sphere of practical action in favor of the highly problematic sphere of the Mind and the Heart. In the end though, they chose very different paths, and this choice was, to my mind, what signified the essential differences in their diverging understanding of conservatism as represented by each man. Waugh decided to write fiction stories, while Mackiewicz decided to accept the post of Editor in Chief of a journal called “Słowo” (the Word) published by the Polish old guard in Vilnus. These very different decisions were the result not only of their temperaments as writers and of their philosophies, but fundamentally stemmed from their divergent understanding of the role and function of a Man of Letters, and more importantly from their different conception of the prohibitions which obligated a conservative gentleman.
Stanisław Mackiewicz and Evelyn Waugh were both pessimists. They were well aware that, from their point of view, the world was tending towards places progressively worse. Both were loyal monarchists, lovers of imperial panache, full of reverence for their excellent past. They believed that the arrogance and vulgarity of the usurpers of the modern world presaged the coming catastrophe. They were, however, far from absolutizing their pessimism into some sort of systematic vision. As men who were raised in good families, they knew that all manner of ‘philosophies of despair’ and ‘philosophies of senselessness’ were in fact just bad manners usually displayed by egoists whose mothers did a bad job of raising them. Both of them were in fact grand egocentrics, yet they were secure against idiocy and ridiculousness on account of the sense of duty they had been raised with. They wrote in the firm belief that the written word could be effective—even if its’ effectiveness was to be reduced to merely preserving and passing on the permanent things to those who would survive the coming catastrophe. Indeed, both of them had a different attitude towards the subject of just how effective they would be.
They acted both prior to the war, and during the war, when the most menacing challenge against humanity was Hitler’s totalitarianism, which was a negation of all Christian principles. Waugh refused to compromise with Satanic totalitarianism. It awakened his sense of abomination. To Waugh, Hitlerism was an evil with which it was impossible to compromise under any circumstances; an evil that could not be granted even an inch of license, an evil with which no negotiation is possible and against which one must fight to the death. Following the outbreak of war, Waugh donned his uniform and never took it off, even when he concluded that the statesmen who sent him to war had betrayed the principles in whose name the war had been fought. One might consider this comportment typical of a man who enjoys absurd situations if not for the fact that Waugh proved just how seriously he took his duties as a soldier. He believed that his writing could only be legitimized if he lived in accordance with the principles of which he wrote.
The literary path chosen by Mackiewicz led him into a very different situation and seemed to demand something quite different of him. He had always considered himself to be a pragmatic man and he valued pragmatic thought amongst statesmen. He did not, however, seem to notice the greatest temptation to face Men of Letters; the temptation to identify with one or another Statesman. Such identification blurs the distinction between pragmatism and opportunism, between morality and realism. Cat often repeated that in politics, there was no room for moral scruples, because the higher morality of the ends of politics allow us to ignore the lower morality of the methods by which politics is conducted. He thus succumbed to the very rationalizations which he so detested amongst his political opponents. This process was not a conscious one; or so I suppose, for I doubt that anyone could question his personal integrity as a man. It seems to me that Stanisław Mackiewicz did not think his choices through to the end, and this is what led him to develop certain faults when he took to professional writing.
Stanisław Mackiewicz’s calling was to be a statesman. He had identified his political sympathies rather early on. He decided to make a political career for himself in his newly reborn fatherland. He understood, however, that in the conservative camp towards which he gravitated, the significance of a man is proportional to his economic and social status. He was under the impression that his publishing might well lead him towards the proper economic and social status. He was quite confident of his abilities. He never suffered from an inferiority complex and thought quite highly of himself. I doubt very much, however, whether he managed to rid himself of that ambivalent comportment towards Men of Letters that is always present—if even subconsciously – in the mentality of the people with whom he allied himself. The echoes of the traditions upheld by the Polish Magnates may well have been the factor which frustrated his efforts at being consistent. It may well have provoked him towards impatience and a tendency to take affront to things.
No one valued independent judgment and the right to ones’ own opinion more than Cat. His tolerance was proverbial. Few people valued language and so vehemently defended the beauty and honesty of the Polish language as he did. There were times, however, when Cat seemed to forget that the written word made certain demands of writers. Those were the times when he went beyond the bounds that separate a writer from a statesman, when insufficient thought suggested to him certain political concepts that were flat out wrong. This is how I go about explaining to myself Cat’s cavalier and shortsighted pro-German writings of the 1930s, an episode of his life that Jaruzelski correctly assesses as “undoubtedly regrettable”. This is also how I explain his discussions with President Raczkiewicz in June of 1940, when Cat Mackiewicz made the rather risky suggestion of coming to a political compromise with Hitler in the vein of Marshal Petain.
I recognize the subjective character of these reflections of mine, wherein I have reduced two excellent writers into pretexts towards my own thoughts. I wish to excuse myself by adding that in writing this essay, I have succumbed—si parva licet componere magnis—to the charms of Plutarch, who always paid far less attention to dates and facts, and sought out the sense of action and the moral consequences of action. Cat and Evelyn Waugh remain images of two possible paths, both arguably in accordance with a historically recognizable conservatism, albeit divergent in terms of where each of these paths is located in the spectrum of conservative thinking. The value of this exercise is that by looking at both of these men, we see the limits within which conservative thought delineates that which is permitted to conservative action.
*On Stanisław “Cat” Mackiewicz, see this.
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