At one time, there was no such political movement similar to the “right”, because what is now called the “right”, properly understood, was the natural organization of traditional societies. It was only the spirit of rebellion, which has marked all recent Western history, that created this dichotomy between the so-called left and right. Note that by this standard there is really nothing of the “right” remaining in the West and it should not be confused with contemporary “conservative” movements.
Historically, the terms derived from the two opposing forces resulting from the French revolution. That led to two distinct, but related, currents of conservative thought. One, which we have focused on, derives from the continental stream beginning with Joseph de Maistre and continuing with Bonald, Louis Veuillot, Donoso Cortes, and many similar critics of liberalism and revolution.
The other current, almost exclusively in English, derives from Edmund Burke; this current has been amply documented in the works of Russell Kirk, particularly in The Conservative Mind. This current is neglected and nearly forgotten; it certainly has no voice in the public square. Instead, in recent times, new currents have arisen, with little or no connection to these two primary currents. Recognizing this, they are ugly prefixes like “neo”, “new”, or “alternative”. Such terms give me agita since they simply sound like “non” to my mind. If you are heading in the right direction, then any innovations or novelties must necessarily be in another direction. If not, they are superfluous
Now I can understand that changing historical circumstances may require new presentations, given that the past cannot repeat itself. However, I believe that is not what is going on, since these novelties seem to embrace the mentality of the modern world that they claim to oppose. Far from being anti-intellectual, the right is the true intellect. Hence, in a schematic way with minimal explanation, I will list its ways of thinking and understanding. Perhaps someone can demonstrate that these novelties accept all these principle, and thus are not novelties at all. Otherwise, it will be helpful to point out their deviations. It is important to stay on the level of principles rather than specific issues; for to say that a “conservative” issue is this or that is often wrong unless there is a reason behind it.
Three principles of Knowledge
- Transcendence: conformance of the mind to transcendent ideas
- Reality: conformance of the mind to the world
- Integrity: conformance of the interior man to the exterior man in his life, speech, and actions
The modern mind rejects at least the first two principles. For it, there are no transcendent ideas in the Mind of God; rather ideas are concepts formed in man’s mind. Since Kant, the external world is held to be unknowable in itself; rather we form ideas about it either through science or ideologies.
Order and Chaos
There are two ways to relate these notions. The first is traditional, the second is modern, and is the logical consequence of scientism and atheism.
- Order, or Logos, is the essential aspect, chaos is the accident
- Chaos is the essential aspect, and order is an accident
Ideology: the Opposite of Knowledge
In rejecting the knowledge of reality, the modern mind is prone to ideology. That is, since there is nothing real that it must conform to, it is free to create grandiose schemes. There is really no common ground for discussion between the two worldviews. It seems to me that the “new” rights are ideological. For example, there are the incessant debates about religion, as though one could pick and choose a religion based on how well it conforms to their ideology. Instead, political thought must follow spiritual reality, not the other way around.
In the Introduction to The Portable Conservative Reader, Russell Kirk expounds on six conservative premises that he derives from Edmund Burke. These are not necessarily metaphysical principles but rather prudential principles intended to guide practical politics. Hence, their applicability will vary for different circumstances.
- Transcendent Moral Order
There is always a “lawgiver”, with divine sanction in a traditional society. In the West, that has taken the form of natural law.
- Social continuity
The order of society is the product of a “long and painful social experience, the results of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice.” This is not to say that change is not necessary, but it needs to be gradual.
This is adherence to the “wisdom of our ancestors”. The first tactic of the revolutionary is always to attack the ancestors. The new rightists, in their constant attack on the foundations of Western civilization, reveal themselves as revolutionaries.
Plato and Burke agree that prudence is the chief virtue of the statesman. The long run consequences of a policy must be taken into account, rather than temporary advantage or popularity.
Conservatives “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.” True and healthy diversity rests of many sorts of inequality.
“Human nature suffers irremediably from certain faults.” This is the fundamental axiom of the science of man. The corollary is that “no perfect social order ever can be created.” All schemes that depend on men acting intelligently and with good will in all circumstances will fail. A fortiori, any system that requires the appearance of a “new man” will fail miserably.
Three Types of Conservatives
Walter Bagehot distinguishes three types of conservatives.
- The Conservatives of Enjoyment
- The Conservatives of Order
- The Conservatives of Reflection
The conservatives of enjoyment like the “old ways” for their own sake. Hence, they prefer ancestral customs in manners, dress, religion, thought, and so on. For this they need no intellectual conviction to justify that preference. Much is taken on “animal faith”, supported by established and ancient traditions. Their primary motivation is loyalty.
The conservatives of order are the petite bourgeoisie who want to hold onto their property, land, family, etc. Thus they support policies that will protect their holdings and wealth, as well as “law and order”. They are often mocked, but yet they form the bedrock of a society. Their primary motivation is fear.
The conservatives of reflection know the reasons for loyalty, order, etc., in short, the principles mentioned above. In Bagehot’s time, he claimed there were too few of them and little has changed. The first two types of conservatives are on the soapbox and their lack of intellectual sophistication makes them easy targets for the forces of revolution.
So what have the novelties of the neo-rightists brought us? They reject the “old ways” and are not loyal to our ancestors, or else they count as ancestors only those from some remote and unknowable and imaginary antiquity. In actuality, they prefer the ways, mores, and beliefs of the modern world and have often admitted it. What have the so called intellectuals of the neo-right added to the two original and discarded streams? Have they recovered those ideas and restated them for modern ears? Can we justly consider them the new conservatives of reflection?