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conservative disposition

H Krzeczkowski

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.

Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh

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

Stanisław Mackiewicz

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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6 replies to this post
  1. Interesting how the conservative temperament with its view of the finiteness of the human race, the limitations of our kind, still lead to different paths of action so that one would not compromise with a form of totalitarianism and the other two would. It brought to mind the controversy concerning a passage that Edmund Burke wrote in his last comments on the French Revolution of a time that may come when “they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself….” This, despite his vehement writings against the Revolution so he in effect says that God will work for the good in ways we do not understand.

    I know Waugh had written that he would have fought on the side of Franco in the Spanish Civil War, any idea how Mackiewicz and Krzeczkowski saw that conflict?

  2. Mr. Mack,

    Thank you for reading. I would take issue with one of your statements – it is not the case that Krzezkowski’s essay illustrates how conservatism can “still lead to different paths of action so that one would not compromise with a form of totalitarianism and the other two would.” No, no. All three men compromised with a form of totalitarianism. Krzezkowski, like Strauss, must be read with care. Exoterically, he blames Cat and praises Waugh. Esoterically, all three men are conservatives who compromised with totalitarianism. Krzeczkowski does not mention Waugh’s compromise, nor the British compromise in Yugoslavia and elsewhere out of prudence and politeness, not to mention because it would be beside the point. Krzeczkowski is getting at something more fundamental than the debate over principle vs. compromise: namely that only the conservative is capable of such compromise with a straight face and to say he is not is like saying a Priest is not capable of absolving sin.

    More on this here:

    Krzeczkowski is not proposing that conservatism has some grand insight into when it is proper to compromise principles and when it is not. His whole essay is an attempt to demonstrate that the conservative as a Man of Letters and Statesman is the RESULT of an education that prepared him to venture into the world with a conscience – and to keep it at the end of his venture. To keep his consciense NOT because he AVOIDED the venture into the world of sin, but because conservatism allows a man of conscience to walk through a sinful world.

    Cat and Waugh actually did not compromise their consciences while compromising their principles – that is why Krzeczkowski feels a kinship with them: because he went through the same plight.

    As to your question regarding Cat, Krzeczkowski and Franco: Krzeczkowski was about 16 years old when the Spanish civil war raged. You can read about his political comportment to this time period in European history here:

    On the whole, I think Krzeczkowski accepted the inevitability of Communism not because of its’ greatness, but because of the depths of human sin that had brought the Old World to its’ end. I imagine that witnessing 80% of the German army invading Russia also had an effect. The effect was likely making the Russian gulag he was thrown into look as though it was not the worst thing in the world.

    Finally, it should be noted that Krzeczkowksi recieved officer training in a military academy named for General Karol Świerczewski – known in Spain as General Walter – the commander of the International Brigades on the side of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil war. Świerczewski was a Polish Communist war hero who would later die fighting the UPA of Ukraine and is now not longer considered a hero by his people – thus independent of what Krzeczkowski (or Cat) thought of the Spanish civil war, it was tied to the fate of Poland. They would have been disingenious to condemn the commander of the Communist forces in Spain, given that this same man died rescuing Poland from Hitler’s Ukrainian allies.There were and are some conservatives who idolize Franco’s spain. I am far from being one of them.

    Though in a sense, for conservatives like Cat and Krzezkowski, the whole “would they be for or against Franco?” question is a trap. Conservatives are against revolutions, against uprisings, against effecting political change by means of the streets, and against the notion that revolutions of any sort are a path to utopia. Franco, despite all of his appeal to traditional Catholic sensibilities, was in the end intent upon overturning an ellected government. Conservatives of course must judge friends from enemies in war – but such judgments, due to the nature of war, are not moral questions.

    Krzeckowski especially, was appaled by the world of “nation vs. communist internationale” – he was a man of whom it could be said, as Anna Kowalska wrote “they were too old to be children of their fatherland.” He grew up in Poland, but the Poland he grew up in – Galicia – the old Eastern Austro-Hungarian Empire – was culturally still very much a part of that world – and he was too.

    Krzeczkowski was focused always on the moral aspect of politics. This was bread into him by his family and his experience. Cat was more interested in the practical aspects of politics.

    Here Cat is correct: morally, the role of a Statesman is to avoid losing a war, avoid destruction of his nation in a war, try to win a war, and in the event he cannot – compromise and negotiate to save his people. Only a fool would look at a war and use the standards of “good and evil” in the literal sense of believing that Side A is “good” and Side B is “bad.” Morality, if it exists at all in war, exists narrowly.

    Cat wrote a large amount about the War. Krzeczkowski did not. He was not interested in the good or the bad of the war because wars are not good or bad. He was interested in people – in human beings and whether they were good or bad. He wrote once “World War II was the epitome of human hubris.” He did not glorify any of the sides, though he fought with the Russians. He was less interested in “who was right” and more interested in reclaiming the civilization that the war and the depths of sin which led to the war had destroyed. That was his life’s work.

    As to Cat and Franco – I have not read enough Cat to answer your question insofar as his writing is concerned. One can imagine that since Cat entertained pro-German sentiments in the 1930s, he likely entertained pro-Franco sentiments, particularly since Hitler aided Franco.

    However, in terms of actions – it is noteworthy that Cat could have gone into exile in Spain following World War II. Certainly from what I understand of his work, I think he would have been happier there than in London and politically, his allies would have understood and perhaps even applauded this avenue of “retirement.”

    Yet Cat decided to return to Stalinist Poland after coming to terms with Stalinists. Many consider this treason, others typical of Cat’s realpolitik. I consider it Christian.

    Cat understood that Poles are Agrarian Republicans, that their religious character is a function of the fact that even when a Snake is lurking in the bushes, they do not run away from the garden given to them by God, but stay – or, in his case – return.

    Cat was a wise enough conservative – wiser than the Poles in London who branded him a traitor – to know that his place was in Poland, that Stalin would pass, communism would pass – but Poland would not.

    more on Cat later.

  3. Mr. Rieth, thank you for your full response to my question. I asked the question because as you say there were and are conservatives that would have backed Franco like Waugh, and I do agree with you that violent political change via the streets certainly goes against the grain of a conservative temperament. But the reason I accept the conservative view of the world is because it is the conservative that can live in the world with the fact of sin which is why I think Burke could write what I quoted above, and why I can see these three you write of as conservatives even if all three did make their compromise with the evil of totalitarianism, something some “conservatives” might not accept. I did not know of any compromise on Waugh’s part though as I’ve not read much about him but knew of his comment about Franco I believe from book introductory material somewhere. But certainly it is the conservative that can accept the fact of evil and its consequences, while others, that go by ever-changing names with the times, do not wish to and are utopians of diverse stripes.

    On the translated essay itself, I did not mean to imply an interpretation of it but was rather commenting on your introductory material concerning these men and their compromises and found it interesting in light of the quote I used from Burke that I only recently had read. It illustrates that conservatives do not have a blueprint of life and can differ on the questions life may present. Burke, had he lived much longer, did have a means of “making peace” anyway (I would not perhaps use the word compromise) with the French Revolution contained in his views upon Providence and the bringing of good from evil and I saw a parallel between the compromises you wrote of in your introductory material and that Burke passage because of the acceptance of limitations, or imperfections, of our kind. While Burke represents the path of resistance to revolution there exists in his writings the idea of Providence working out something he cannot understand being limited in knowledge and so another path is possible concerning revolution which Burke himself may hint at it even while vehemently fighting against the Revolution. While resisting, he could still accept that the Revolution may be God’s will and that, “The Evil has happened; the thing is done in principle and in example; and we must wait the good pleasure of an higher hand than ours for the time of its perfect accomplishment in practice in this Country and elsewhere. All I have done for some time past, and all I shall do hereafter, will only be to clear myself from having any hand, actively or passively, in this great change.”

  4. Well, I hope my introduction on compromises has not compromised the essay itself. I felt it necessary to note this fact because Krzeczkowski is not an abstract author, but rather takes history – in the sense of personal history – very seriously.

    As to your musings on Burke – this is a very good subject, because it gets into the question of what we can do when it seems the world keeps slipping away into some madness. I am far from the optimism of believing that God has some special plan in mind for the destiny of worldly affairs, and that when things go wrong, they do so for a good reason. In fact, As I age, I take Hobbes’ view more seriously.

    We say “human sin”, and we think of this or that vice, but really human sin is far deeper, and it manifests itself best in politics, because politics is where man exhibits himself as an aggregate – a nation, or even the world.

    I often wonder to myself – just what kind of a fellow would go out on the streets and commit to a violent overthrow of everything? Why, I can’t even stand going to a peaceful rally. I simply do not like it. I would rather people deliberated amongst themselves and voted in a calm and orderly fashion, accepted the outcome of the vote and – if dissapointed, continued deliberating.

    In point of fact, we see these vast mobs arising here and there. We offer up many explanations – poverty and lack of opportunity are often the principle ones. But I think this argument is, quite frankly, stupid. In some parts of the world, people live in fabulous relative wealth – and yet they still riot and are unruly – while in other parts of the world, people are relatively poorer and behave well.

    I think it’s the culture, or lack thereof – maybe – but in whole – it’s just that people are nasty, brutish and thus their lives are often short. Or, to put it another way – they are fallen.

    But I don’t know. Your ruminations on Burke open an important topic.


  5. Your thoughts are very much in line with my own. I too often have Hobbes’ “nasty, brutish, and short” phrase pass through my mind as these days I see this world as simply insane, madness as you put it. The possibility of Burke’s accepting things as God’s will is also something I find difficult particularly when it appears history is only repetitive. I am just starting a study of Charles Norris Cochrane’s Christianity and Classical Culture and so much of the subject matter he writes of brings to mind the phrase “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Perhaps that should not surprise a conservative who accepts this as a world inhabited by the fallen souls you speak of. But I ask how long must the whole creation groan and travail in pain together as St. Paul put it?

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