The Mood of Conservatism

The Rising Generation Is Both More Passionate and More Intelligent
The author in 1962 (Wikimedia Commons)

 

[This article originally appeared in the June 7, 1963 issue of Commonweal.]

According to Paul Elmer More, the great strength of conservatism lies in “its trust in the controlling power of the imagination.” A paucity of imagination was the affliction of American conservatives for most of this century. But there are signs that the old vigor of conservative thought, evocative and challenging, is at work in this country once more.

For some twelve years, or a little longer, the revival of conservative ideas has stirred the muddy waters of twentieth-century intellectuality in this country. Parallel with this intellectual movement, though often unconnected with it, has gone a reawakening of popular conservatism, now clearly discernible in both political parties. And one must ask the questions, “Can some union, or at least coordination, of literary and practical conservatism be achieved? More important, can conservative principles be applied with success to the grim exigencies of this country, which may be at the crisis of its fate?”

Of ferment, there is plenty in conservative circles. But much of it is little better than squabbling. Dr. R. A. Nisbet, Dean of the University of California at Riverside, and the author of an important conservatively-inclined book, The Quest for Community, recently wrote to me of his distress at the tone of such debates. “It seems to me,” he comments, “that conservatism has fallen somewhat from the proud estate it held during the three or four years following publication of your The Conservative Mind. What bothers me increasingly is the extent to which conservatives have fallen into the old Nation and New Republic habits of mere counterpunching.”

Well may Professor Nisbet say so. This point is made in greater detail by a graduate student who wrote to me at length, with some eloquence:

     I find myself very comfortable with your works. I am at home with Burke. But I am in no way at home with what masquerades as conservatism on our campus, or which reaches me through the courtesy of certain ‘conservative’ propagandists. It is all very well for us to ally ourselves temporarily with the enemy as a tactical trick for political purposes; but I cannot clasp these ‘individualists,’ these atomists, to my bosom. I am not at all comfortable when they act as if limiting government were the same as detesting government; and I tremble when they tell me that when men are freed from the influence of the State, they will develop into such splendid beings.
     I think it monstrous that the conservative is asked to stand aside while the ‘individualist’ industrialist destroys everything familiar; indeed, do more than stand aside, actively defend his right to do so without the interference of the state or the community. I do not think it amazing that the populace turns to the Liberal when we offer him nothing but the consolation that the invisible hand will construct for him a materialist world beyond the dreams of avarice. I suspect that he would rather not have quite so much in the way of material goods, and have quite a bit more assurance about enjoying those he possesses. When the conservative, the man of virtue, the party of virtue, talks like a Manchester industrialist, how can we blame the people from turning to the unions and the State for help? We taught him to do so ....
     I see no one who approaches the rents in our social fabric as he would the wounds of a father. My friends of the Right would create discord and disharmony so great that I doubt the Republic could survive them; or at least they talk as if they would. They sound to me very high-minded, full of sacred principles which must not be compromised, no matter what the cost. End the Farm Subsidy tomorrow! The next day abolish the Unions. Harass the Communists; and if to make that omelet a few Liberal heads are broken, so much the better. Sell all government property at auction, and stop competing with businessmen. Repeal, change, destroy! More competition—it produces more goods!
     On the other hand, I see my friends of the Liberal persuasion. Innovate! Change! Destroy! For every social ill, a new law; and an administrator for every human need. Let’s get the country moving again. Produce more goods!
     We have, I hope forever, managed to reject Ayn Rand and her doctrine of the Ego and his Own. But have we no more to offer than the tired doctrines of the nineteenth-century liberal, refurbished for 1968? Must we forever wear the livery of a plutocracy masquerading in the clothes of their betters? Perhaps you have already given me the only advice you can give-to prepare for the role of Don Quixote. If that is all we can do, then I suppose I must burnish my shield. But I do not want to sell my sword to those who today claim the Flight. If I must tilt at windmills, then I may as well take on all comers.

 

No longer are students simply talking about an abstraction called “conservatism,” as a kind of fad. They are thinking and reading, instead

In the indignation of this student, the conservative cause has its best hope. The rising generation of conservatives, especially on the campus, are at once more passionate and more intelligent than their elders. There exist almost no John Birch devotees, for instance, in the several hundred college conservative clubs. Ayn Rand’s influence now scarcely penetrates beyond the high-school level. Even the bellicosity and sloganizing of the conservative students on his own campus, which he reproaches, is less offensive and more susceptible of amendment than the radical student movements of my own college days.

As a specimen of how student conservatives have become increasingly sober and imaginative during the past decade, one may take the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, with many college chapters, now organized in four sectional regions covering the country. The I.S.I. people began-consonant with their name-as nineteenth-century individualists, quoting Tom Paine and the old-fangled liberals. But they have altered much, so that their name somewhat embarrasses them nowadays. Edmund Burke has become their prophet; and they seek the balance of order, justice, and freedom, rather than an unqualified atomic individual liberty. Most of them have a religious basis for their politics. And as they have grown more scholarly, their popularity has increased across the country.

No longer are students simply talking about an abstraction called “conservatism,” as a kind of fad. They are thinking and reading, instead. Among the books which the I.S.I. members discuss, for instance, are Mr. Louis Bredvold’s The Brave New World of the Enlightenment, Mr. Peter Stanlis’ Edmund Burke and the Natural Law, and Mr. Wilhelm Roepke’s A Humane Economy. They are less impressed with tracts like Mr. Frank Meyer’s recent In Defense of Freedom, which is mostly John Stuart Mill redivivus-though forced into the Procrustean bed of ideology, as often is the way with ex-Marxist writers.

The better young people among the student conservatives, indeed, are clearer about their first principles than are their elders. Books about conservative doctrines continue to pour from both commercial and university presses; but not all of them are enlightening. Mr. Willmoore Kendall, in The Conservative Affirmation, has rediscovered the Federalist Papers, and makes them the laws of the Medes and the Persians. While the Federalists had much political wisdom, one scarcely can create political theory for the dawning age solely out of these materials; yet it is heartening to find Mr. Kendall transferring his affections from Rousseau to more prudent works.

Mr. Peter Viereck almost sobs that the young conservatives have not taken him for a true prophet, but have gone pouring after Senator Goldwater. The truly conservative American politicians, he declares, are President Kennedy and Mr. Adlai Stevenson! It is not surprising that such imaginative conservatives as the graduate student I quote above, though not by any means satisfied with the leadership of the Republican party, decline to embrace a “conservatism” which takes for its heroes the leaders of the present liberal interest, and advocates latter-day “¢liberal” measures through “conservative” apologetics.

(Mr. Kennedy and Mr. Stevenson, like most American practical politicians, have mingled conservative and liberal concepts in their minds, of course-which I do not remark to their discredit. When, recently, President Kennedy named his favorite books, nearly all of them were about conservatives, and most of them were by conservatively-inclined authors. Parties and party leadership are in flux now. One might make a fairly good case for the argument that Senator Eugene McCarthy, in his primary assumptions, is conservative; certainly he quotes Burke.)

Yet this crabbed disagreement among conservative scholars does have the advantage of reminding the younger conservatives that conservatism is not a political sect: on the contrary, conservatism is a body of opinions, susceptible of varying interpretations, not governed by any secular Holy Writ. “What is conservatism?” Abraham Lincoln once asked. “Is it not preference for the old and tried over the new and untried?” Though it is more than this, Lincoln’s rhetorical definition does suffice to suggest that the conservative rejects ideology and utopia. (Incidentally, for the first time in its hundred and ninety-five years, the Encyclopedia Britannica now contains a long article on “conservatism”—by your servant.)

Rather than forming themselves into a lock-step band of brothers, marching to Zion, the conservatives in their twenties and thirties seem to be turning toward the prudent application of conservative ideas to our present discontents. If they are rebels against the established liberalism, still they do not expect or desire to reconstitute American society on some pattern of perfection. They know that politics is the art of the possible.

So I set down here what seems to me the mood of the educated or educable conservative now groping for means to resist the power of modern totalism and to restore purpose to American life. Though there exists no conservative “party line,” these beliefs are obtaining the upper hand, I think, among the young people who will be leaders in politics, business, the churches, the professions, and the colleges and schools, ten or twenty or thirty years from now.

 

If the time is out of joint, if norms are ignored or violated, then the conservative becomes, in some sense, a rebel.

Integral conservatism does not consist in dull contentment with present dominations and opinions. In essence, the conservative is a champion of norms, of what Mr. T. S. Eliot calls “the permanent things”; and if the time is out of joint, if norms are ignored or violated, then the conservative becomes, in some sense, a rebel. He acts, if he can, to renew the public apprehension of norms and to restore a tolerable balance of order and freedom, in whose tension justice resides. And today the thinking conservative finds himself under the domination of Dinos, King Whirl, and sees all about him the symptoms of social disintegration. In such an age the conservative turns reformer.

Far from assuming that whatever is today, is right, the American integral conservative is likely to concur in a remark of Professor Eliseo Vivas: that it is one of the marks of human decency to be ashamed of having been born into the twentieth century. Thus the younger conservatives are not dismayed by the liberals’ quips about Senator Goldwater’s intention of repealing the twentieth century, for who ought to sing the praises of the century of Hitler and Stalin? (Senator Goldwater, by the way, is not the unreconstructed Manchesterian or Benthamite liberal of Herblock caricature. He has learned much since he entered politics, almost in a fit of absence of mind, as a municipal reformer; and today he reads and quotes Orestes Brownson, the most neglected of American social conservatives.)

What Disraeli once gave to England, a reflective and imaginative conservatism; what Theodore Roosevelt often represented here—this, I think, is what the American conservative now fumbles for. Like it or not, we Americans have become the great bulwark against radical collectivism: we are the strong conservative power of modern times.

Yet, with an occasional exception, politicians of both parties, by a cultural lag (“Prevailing opinions,” said Disraeli, “generally are the opinions of the generation that is passing,”), continue to utter the phrases of liberalism, old-style or new-style. Party leaders and publicists still emphasize economic measures almost exclusively, assuming that the American public desires “more spending” or “less spending”—and little else. (A Chateaubriand wrote a hundred and thirty years age “The modern statesman understands only the stock market-and that badly.”) Many things are worse than a government somewhat plodding and unimaginative. But the sixties are a time when America cannot afford to muddle through her difficulties—a period when, in Napoleon’s phrase, imagination will rule the world. However much certain journalists and professors hanker after some New Deal, the problems of the sixties are not the problems of the thirties. Primarily, the grand problems of America are not economic.

They are social problems, rather, which America shares with most of the world. They go to the root of things, and so are radical difficulties; but radical ills, often may be treated by conservative remedies. They are the problems of what makes life worth living, and of what constitutes the just society. They are the problems of life with principle; of social boredom or work with purpose; of antipathy or harmony of classes; of a deadening mass-state or of ordered liberty. They are concerned with whether man is made in the image of God, or is merely a producing-and-consuming animal. Many practical politicians may be embarrassed at having to deal with such notions as these; but the survival of our nation and our civilization will depend upon our finding some tolerable answers.

A writer who calls himself neither liberal nor conservative—Professor Glen Tinder, writing in the Review of Politics three years ago—argues that we suffer from the ills of “mass disintegration.” Of “social welfare” measures we have no lack; but mass disintegration continues apace. Some aspects of this phenomenon are the separation of man from nature, through urbanization; the loss of human roots in place; the decay of truly personal property; the common lack of links with the past and of hope for the future; the dwindling of a genuine sense of community—all these pushing us toward what Gabriel Marcel calls “a broken world.” To such primary problems of modern society, now urgently demanding thought and action, neither politicians nor political scientists have paid much sober attention. Yet these, rather than “the relatively secondary problems of physical security and economic distribution,” ought to be the preoccupation of the imaginative conservative and the discerning liberal. That we neglect the true ends of the nation, to our imminent peril, is evidence of what Dr. Tinder describes as “the failure of political imagination.”

Now Dr. Tinder remarks elsewhere that though some conservative writers have paid attention to these matters, conservatism cannot deal adequately with such conundrums of modern society, If “conservatism” is simply a term of relation, implying mere contentment with existing establishments, then he is right. But such energetic conservatives as the graduate student whom I have quoted set their sights higher.

 

The new generation of conservatives is not obsessed by the slogans for or against the New Deal of Roosevelt. When legislation for “human welfare” is being discussed, for instance, the younger conservatives do not center discussion wholly round the dogmas of nineteenth-century self-reliance, nor yet give way to sentimental largesse of public funds to masses of people that happen to have political leverage. Indeed, as Dr. Tinder observes, “The rather indiscriminate fervor of liberals for welfare measures can appear highly ludicrous if one reflects on the degree of welfare which almost everyone already enjoys.” The rising conservatives feel that governmental action for the general welfare should be rooted in an understanding of the effects of relieving men and women from their principal duties-and private satisfactions-in life. They recall Irving Babbitt’s aphorism, “We must find our happiness in work, or not at all.”

Similarly, the typical young conservative is no more an “isolationist” than he is an enthusiast for world government. He recalls, with Phyllis McGinley, that even God is said to be three separate persons: diversity, not uniformity, is the blessing of mankind, in public affairs as in private life. Therefore the conservative, though determined to withstand Soviet power, does not advocate some planned Americanization of the world. Such “liberal” secular evangelism, he feels, not only will fail of its object, but may disorder still further our time of troubles. In the long run, and perhaps the short run, the reaction of Asia and Africa—for that matter, of Europe—to our “liberal” proselytizing would be that of the Lebanese in Cunninghame-Graham’s story “Sidi bu Zibbula”—sitting, like Job, upon a great dunghill: “I have seen your Western cities; and the dung is better.” Foreign policy, the conservative believes, must rest upon such knowledge as this.

I cannot proceed here to detail conservative opinions on the thirty or forty principal questions before the nation nowadays. Yet I see many signs that American conservatives, responding slowly to the challenge of the age, are beginning to exercise again their old inheritance of imagination. “Conservative” political racketeers, so much exposed and denounced today (sometimes exposed and denounced by parallel “liberal” political racketeers, who make a tolerable business out of this), are a nuisance and a curse; but they have small and decreasing influence upon the conservatives whom I have tried to describe.

All in all, cheerfulness is breaking in again. American conservatives still can stand a good deal of educating. But they are ceasing to be Mill’s “stupid party”; and today, as against the “disintegrated” or “ritualistic” liberals (whom I distinguish from prudential liberals), they are less given to cant and slogan. Increasingly, they will affect the tone and temper of American politics. And theirs may be a conservatism of reflection.

Russell Kirk, a previous contributor to these pages, was the author of The Conservative Mind and, at the time of this articles publication, a columnist for The National Review.

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