On Old Rightism and Traditional Conservatism
On Old Rightism and Traditional Conservatism
Even if modern man has been almost completely severed from his past he is hopeless unless he first rediscovers avenues of continuity.
One of the rhetorical difficulties that could be had in coming to terms with a label such as conservatism is that it is interpreted in light of the overall framework of our time. There’s a certain meta-narrative that defines our epoch and much of it is centered around the themes of progress and continued social advancement. It is implied in almost every discussion that the social opinions that permeate the present—the zeitgeist—are an improvement on the philosophical frameworks of ages past, and moreover that the sociological aspects of civilization too are necessarily better. This presumes the so-called “Whig interpretation of history,” which Richard Weaver summarizes as the “teaching that the most advanced point in time is the most advanced in development.” Or, less pithy, Butterfield himself writes in his preface that the Whig interpretation is
"the tendency in many historians... to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present."
In this framework, conservatism is often taken to be the position that tomorrow’s advancement is too far, but yesterday’s is mostly unobjectionable. And indeed, this seems to be the general implication of the way an obvious majority of the Conservative Movement in the West discusses its own “ideas.” This presents an obvious rhetorical problem for those who think about conservatism with a much broader historical lens.
Thus, we make constant and vital use of the qualifiers “traditionalist” or “classical” together with our employment of “conservative” in order to draw a firm line and divide against what should be called “modern conservatism.” This latter distorted “conservatism” seeks to preserve the philosophical assumptions of modernity, or, worse, the path that modernity has taken. The conservatism of our time, the conservatism that currently dominates the West is so often a conservation of the advancements and moods of yesterday’s prophets of “progress.” Conservatism has become for the West an attempt to commend the institutionalization of liberal democracy and the universalization of abstracts such as equality, democracy, and vague "human rights."
Classical or traditionalist conservatism is much different, more particularly focused, and less about changing the world. It came to the awareness of political movements during the great transition into the modern age during the French Revolution. This was the moment in time, tied closely to the geographical West in which new socio-political struggles were playing out, where various warring factions butted heads in new ways, each trying to make sense of, and deal with, the shifting tides as history tumbled away from the pre-modern arrangements. The thousand year European order began its age of fracture and dissipation, having yet still to find stability as constant change is the new permanent character of the Western world since the seventeenth century.
Right and Left were therefore born in a particular historical moment and then evolved as a fundamental interpretive incompatibility with regard to how, exactly, Western man should respond to the sprouting new epoch. The conservatism that was inherent in a certain mood or demeanor toward preservation and continuity soon needed to identify specific examples of what was good in the past in order to latch on to something tangible in a fleeting world. Thus was born what Robert Nisbet called the “Sociological Tradition.” Classical conservatism therefore was not mere “anti-change,” it was also for specific elements of actual social order that were under attack by revolutionary thinking. Among these were the importance of family, kin and (organic) community over individual, the fundamental nature of social hierarchies over equality, the stability that comes from connection to particular customs and traditions, and a strong opposition toward “rationalistic” social planning.
One of the defining characteristics of the authentic Right that most obviously sets it apart from the modern conservative movement, especially since the 1960s, is that Rightism once had its focus in the particularities of a given social order. If the Left wants to discover universals and bring all of society into harmonious accordance with said universals (often at increasingly centralized levels), the Right stresses the dangers inherent in planning society in this way. From Burke in England to Maistre in France to Stahl in Germany, what set the original Right apart from the Left was that it looked not to some nebulous and abstract Platonic tradition, but that each social order (each nation, at that time) must look first to its own customs and structures for guidance. Western man at the dawn of Left and Right was born into a specific setting and that setting was an important part of his own sociological makeup; man was a product of the cultural context into which he was born and therefore this context offered stability and meaning. Germans, English, Scottish, French, Irish, Swedish, Spanish, Italian, and so on; each with their own norms, customs, and standards. Rightism was essentially the impulse or instinct of preservation of the overall context that shaped communities.
Rightism next evolved into an identification of certain positive civilizational “goods” that had been organically handed down over the centuries and which in the era of cataclysm needed to be consciously preserved. Rightism identified positive elements in Western civilization, with specific expression within the particular sub-European nations, and conservatism was the urge to preserve them. Rightism and conservatism, therefore, were united together as one: the demeanor or mood of conservation were happily met with existing good things to conserve.
Old American Rightism too, while short lived, also had a moment of time where it looked to its own setting in order to draw conclusions for guidance. The Old Right in America was the America First right that opposed military intervention in Europe, opposed the New Deal, and had an Originalist understanding of the US Constitution. In this framework, the United States was a federalist political body, with emphasis on regional diversity and the temporal nature of the voluntary Union. Lincoln, Teddy, Wilson, FDR… these were the enemies of the Old Right, all of whom, in one way or another, sought to undermine the socio-political context of the American dynamic. This historically-laden approach of the Old Right is, as I note here in my article on the role of Strauss in the making of a modern American "Postwar Right," what makes it authentically "Rightist."
Now, from that age of transition to the modern era in Western history, Rightism and Leftism as different ways of dealing with the transitioning age pulled further apart from each other over the centuries, but also further apart from the original turning point. The points of reference, varied in our international age, have become blurrier and blurrier over the decades, fading first into memory, then into textbook, and now not even there does it remain.
And thus we are faced with the difficult question: can rightists, proponents of specific sociological institutions and associations, also be meaningfully “conservative” if the social goods and institutions of Western Civilization have faded away? Should we abandon conservatism and instead be “reactionary?” Paul Gottfried often poses a similar question and relates this challenge to the growing gap between the original point of reference in Western history and the triumphs of the political Left. For instance, in his Revisions and Dissents, he writes:
“A direction in which the Right and Left have been moving for several generations, and perhaps most vigorously in the last fifty years, has been the uncoupling of worldview and value from the their earlier social grounding. Ideas that were once attached to classes and ways of life have been cut loose from their moorings and have taken on changing forms within a succession of movements. Equally noteworthy is that those who invoke what are already untethered worldview are often nostalgic for reference points that have ceased to exist. Such Americans of conservative inclinations as Russell Kirk, Robert Nisbet, Richard Weaver, and Melvin E. Bradford all held up model conservative societies in which their preferred ways of life were practiced. They tried to relate their idealized order to what they saw as still existing in some form, but such searches for a continuing past may be becoming fruitless when a ubiquitous form of the Left is coming to dominate our lives.”
Hence, the question that confronts us is what can we say of “conservatism” in a world that has been severed completely from its historical setting? This bites at the core of modern man’s place in history. Are we no longer the product of our heritage? Has the link been amputated beyond recovery by a triumphant Left? Whatever the answer, it is an obvious feature of our age that historical continuity is under siege, intellectually, spiritually, culturally, and politically.
What made classical conservatism, or the Old Right, distinct was that it was focused on a reference point of history and the social and moral components of that moment in time. But more importantly, it sensed a connection to that reference point that could be identified in elements of the present. That is to say, though that older age was faded, its sustained effects could be observed and identified. Today, this is largely untrue. 1940 was not 1789, yet how much more radically removed is the milieu of our time in 2020 from the decades prior to the Cold War? The “goods” that were identified in Western civilization up to the moment of the French Revolution have since been trampled into non-existence. They do not lay tangibly before us in a way that we can conserve them.
What is meant then by the terms classical or traditional conservatism as opposed to a general conservatism is that we are expressing an urge to study the very elements of civilization that modern conservatism does not, in its yearning to appeal to modern passions and tastes, care much about. Modern conservatism is “movement schizophrenia,” pretending to conserve the present, yet bloviating for the attention of the modern individual in his state of de-civilizing decline. Modern conservatism appears silly in its race to join modern man at the bottom, always one step on the ladder above a liberalism that leads the parade. Leftism has conquered the world as the Progressive Left blazes new trails and the “Conservative” Left waddles behind it to pave these trails with the finest of pavements.
The essence of the Old Right is its emphasis on the importance of particularity, of the organic development of culture and custom and the socially beneficial restraining effect this can have on man. Even if modern man has been almost completely severed from his past, and all that lies before us is a testimony of this detachment, he is hopeless unless he first rediscovers avenues of continuity. Man is not just a social being, he is a historically-dependent one.
And yet, as Gottfried argues somewhat bleakly, the fact that the point of reference for Western Rightism is completely separated from the current state of things constitutes our moment of crisis. He notes that “the Right as it emerged from its original context, namely, as the worldview that accompanied the birth of European conservatism,” in one sense has been firmly overcome by a Left that has won the world. There is no meaningful “Right” movement any longer in the mainstream West. It has, throughout the twentieth century, had moments of resurgence, only to be swept back by a Progressive American-led empire. He continues, “we are noting the end of a process, one in which a particular worldview has been separated from its original home and absorbed piecemeal into other movements. This fragmented response to a broken past has characterized a Right that has survived the vanishing of the world of classical conservatism.”
Classical conservatism is a reaction against the contemporary world; it is not mere and empty conservation. It agrees with Russell Kirk: “If tradition sinks into mere unquestioning routine, it digs its own grave; for man then approximates vegetal nature, disavowing reason and conscience as correctors and restorers of tradition.” It is intentional in referencing specifics of human character, social arrangements, the role of religion, and worldview. It is conservative not in the sense that it praises the present, but in the sense that it argues that we cannot create a better world without any reference to something that came before, no matter how far we have been removed from this point of reference. This necessarily "reactionary" aspect was captured well by Mel Bradford in his essay collection The Reactionary Imperative, where he writes:
“The other kind of reactionary is a more complicated proposition because he operates according to some principle or prescription, going beyond the mere impulse to preserve. In order to complain of an outrage it is more productive to invoke a bygone felicity than it is to insist on counsels of perfection, even though such returns never get all the way back to the ‘way things were,’ and something better than that is the eventual objective of the exhortation.
‘Reaction' is a necessary term in the intellectual context we inhabit late in the twentieth century because merely to conserve is sometimes to perpetuate what is outrageous.”
In this light, the present role of the classical or traditionalist conservative, might be best described as an archivist (hat tip to Ben Lewis for this wonderful observation). He must be a medium through which, against the odds, something is preserved in the memory of the true Remnant. What that looks like in practice, beyond the necessity and indispensability of raising families that act as the final platoons, is difficult to pinpoint. Though there are some interesting developments with regard to mimicking the meta-politics of the Gramscian far left; see Daniel Friberg's The Real Right Returns. But perhaps this is more difficult in America than in Europe, as America is the cultural and political epicenter of the liberal World Order.
Nevertheless, the archivist role is a good description until a meaningful movement comes to light. In a world of Facebook and Twitter, where all content is specifically about the immediately present, forgotten by the end of the week, finding ways to understand the past, organize it, interpret it, and communicate it is vital.
Gottfried, after a lifetime of reflection and study on Rightist lost causes, concludes his Chapter Three in Revisions and Dissents as follows:
Throughout my career I have earned the reputation of being a spoilsport when speaking about positions I respect but that seem unlikely to gain ground in unreceptive times. In my defense, there is value in assessing one’s obstacles before beginning a steep climb. In this chapter, attention has been directed to the obstacle course that confronts any genuine Right that seeks to gain influence. My approach has been that of a generally sympathetic observer but not a prospective participant. At this late point in my life, I am hardly fit for the rigorous journey that I have tried to outline for others.
About the author
C.Jay Engel is the founder and publisher of Bastion Magazine. He has written for Mises.org, LRC, David Stockman, and related. He owns several consulting business, actively works on the magazine, and lives in Northern CA.