Paleoconservativism and Conservativism

Roman Joch

Paleoconservatism and Conservatism
by Roman Joch, Civic Institute Prague, Czech Republic

No good deed should remain unpunished, Samuel Francis obviously thought, when he penned an overwrought response (“(Con)fusion on the Right”, Chronicles, March 2004) to a more-or-less friendly treatise on paleoconservatism by Donald Devine (“Conservatism, Chronicles and Paleoconservatism”, Well, I myself would be tougher on paleoconservatives than Mr. Devine had been. Why, I would be as tough on paleoconservatism as I would be on… neoconservatism. When reading some articles by both neocons and paleocons, sometimes I even think, “Plague on both of your houses!”

Let me first ask, what is the trouble with neoconservatism? They have too high a tolerance of and affinity to socialism and welfare statism, they lack the will to fight back against the statist and anti-moral, anti-religious onslaughts of the liberal left, and they themselves have surrendered to big government, disguising it as “National Greatness” or “Strong Government” conservatism. Should conservatives really follow Bismarck or should they follow George Washington and James Madison? Moreover, they really expect to democratize the whole world. I sometimes even doubt that democracy will work for my own country (the Czech Republic), much less everywhere! The sad truth is that in many nations of the Third World you cannot have a democracy without perverting it into tyranny after the first elections.

Conservatives believe the Rule of Law and an independent Judiciary are more important than ballots. Of course, successful democracies can exist even in non-Western cultures – as in Japan, South Korea or on Taiwan – but only after some half century of right wing, pro-Western authoritarian regimes. Even in the very mother of liberal democracy, in Great Britain, it took more than two centuries after the Glorious Revolution in 1688 to fully implement a functioning democracy. The Rule of Law had to come first, the one man (much less the one woman), one vote came later. That was the case even of the United States. Why be in a hurry, let us say, in Jordan–in order to get a pro-Palestinian, virulently anti-Israeli majority government? To make a long story short, democracy is a good form of government for the West and for some of westernized nations in the world; but most nations will need a right-wing authoritarian regime first.

What is right with neoconservatism? They do support–at least in theory–economic freedom, the role of religion and virtue in the social life of all countries, and standing with the West, free nations and free governments in the world when they are threatened by their totalitarian neighbors. I even agree with the neoconservative’s hawkish attitude and would like to see at least one thug and dictator being smashed by Western power every ten years – just to deter all other thugs and tyrants, to let them know that the West really means business. But please save us from this democracy–exporting nonsense.

But I digress, what about paleoconservatism? I admire their firm belief in decentralization and federalism, their loyalty to the Old Republic as conceived by the Founding Fathers, their explicit appreciation of Christianity, their radical opposition to left-liberalism, without any undue apologies. And one can find some of the best examples of intellectual freedom and free espression on the paleo-right today, and in only a few places anywhere else.

But the general approach of the paleos is burdened by one major negative trait and several bad habits. The first is their fear of and antipathy to clear political principles, to the very concept of politically relevant, universal objective truth. What is – or, rather, should conservatism be all about? About conserving the truth – true notions of justice, morality, civility and freedom. But for any notion to be true, it must necessarily be universal, absolute, and binding on all people at all places in all times. The Decalogue – the Ten Commandments – is true, and therefore relevant for all people in all nations in all eras. “Thou shall not kill!” – it does not mean “thou shall not kill, except Negroes”, it does not mean “thou shall not kill in the 19th Century, but you may in the 20th,”it does not mean “thou shall not kill in Alabama, but you may in Oklahoma.” It simply means you shall not deliberately kill any innocent human being, period. Paleocons seem not to understand that – they consider universal norms of justice to be a product of Enlightenment Liberalism – as if Moses, and the God, at Mt. Sinai, were Enlightenment Liberals. Paleocons would profit very much by re-reading their favorite, but neglected, Richard Weaver, and his defense of philosophic realism against relativist, historicist and particularist nominalism.

Second, paleoconservatives understand conservatism as a policy and a set of thoughts exclusively directed at a defense of privileges of certain social, racial, ethnic, and religious strata of society. This is misguided and not really conservative in any true sense. What would be its answer to the question, why do you favor that strata of society, that you belong to, or imagine you belong to? Paleocons would have nothing to say – just that it is their personal preference or their historical tradition. But their opponents, be they neoconservatives or left liberals, may answer that they have their own preferences or traditions, equally legitimate, and all discussion would come to an impasse, all theoretical debates would resolve into power struggles only, without any recourse to the possibility of knowing the truth. There is in fact only one valid and firm reason for defending and advocating what we defend and advocate – and that is the truth. However, an appeal to truth, by necessity in universal categories, is an anathema to paleos, because they are so particularist, historicist and therefore, yes, relativist, in their outlook.

Now to our good Mr. Francis. First, he claims that Mr. Devine erred when he identified conservatism with fusionism. Mr. Francis wrote: “Fusionism was never identical with the conservative movement, nor did it serve as its chief ideological vehicle…” Well, granted that fusionism was not completely identical with conservatism; it nevertheless did represent its chief ideological vehicle. Fusionism has been the mainstream of American conservatism: it has been its core and its most successful political manifestation. Of course, there were other kinds of conservatism as well, e.g. that one which Mr. Francis belongs to and which was politically manifested by George Wallace, but it was a rather minor and fringe stream to the main one, represented by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, which reflected William Buckley’s and Frank Meyer’s fusionism. Mr. Francis may not like the fusionist mainstream of Goldwater and Reagan?the latter of whom explicitly expressed his debt to Meyer and fusionism–and fancy George Wallace; but any honest, objective student of U.S. history and of the American conservative movement would not hesitate to say which was the core, which the mainstream, and which was its fringe–and, more important, which has had the greater political impact.

Second, Mr. Francis writes, “Meyer more or less defined ‘fusionism’… by the mantra that the American tradition was ‘a tradition of liberty’, so that the True Conservative did affirm the importance of ‘tradition’ so long as the tradition he supported was the one that affirmed ‘liberty’.” No, Frank S. Meyer did not define fusionism in that way. He definitely maintained that the American tradition had been one of freedom and therefore no one in America had the right to call himself a conservative unless he was a defender of freedom. However, his political philosophy (called ‘fusionism’ by L. Brent Bozell) had the relationship between freedom and virtue at its core, not a relation between freedom and tradition. It maintained that man could achieve virtue only in freedom–therefore freedom was the end of the political order, granted that virtue was the end of human existence. Freedom and virtue were really important; tradition was only to the point that a tradition conserved political freedom and moral norms and social conditions of virtue. For Meyer, there was no “virtue” in the Communist tradition nor in other cosmological traditions or its empires.

Third, contrary to Mr. Francis’ claim, Frank Meyer did not read out of the movement “just about anyone with an independent mind, including some of the best ones… anyone who disagreed – including Russell Kirk himself.” Frank Meyer criticized what he saw as historicist tendencies in Russell Kirk (“wisdom of our ancestors”), but appreciated his natural law arguments (“permanent things”) and definitely did not “read him out” of the conservative movement, as any reader of Meyer’s anthology What is Conservatism? (1964) should know. Well, whom did Frank Meyer really read out of the conservative movement? Some of the best and the brightest? Definitely not. He did read out Peter Viereck in the 50s, indeed; but Viereck, though an author of memorable conservative bon-mots like “anti-Catholicism is anti-Semitism of liberals” and “conservatism is secularization of the Christian doctrine of the Original Sin”, was in fact a supporter – and “conservator” of F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal – not exactly a supporter of the road worth following for conservatives. Yes, Frank Meyer did write some critical things about Ayn Rand, but she certainly did not accept the virtue part of the conservative equation. Whom else? Ah, yes, Murray Rothbard and Karl Hess in 1968, when both advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament with the Soviets and sweet brotherhood with the New Left. Was it an unpardonable purge by Meyer? It does not seem so. Anybody else? Well, yes: one guy, called George Wallace, in the presidential election of 1968, for spending in Alabama like a drunken sailor; sorry, like a FDR Democrat. Now, was that unpardonable to Sam Francis?

Fourth, Francis writes: “His [Meyer's] manifesto of fusionism, In Defense of Freedom, was pounded with criticism by almost every major thinker associated with conservatism – not only Kirk, in a devastating review in the Sewanee Review, but Fr. Stanley Parry, Willmoore Kendall, Richard M. Weaver, and Whittaker Chambers, among others.” Well, Russell Kirk did indeed criticized Meyer in Sewanee Review for “supplementing Marx with Meyer” – and what was wrong with that, I ask? I would unreservedly prefer Meyer to Marx, does not Mr. Francis? Fr. Stanley Parry, as an Aristotelian, naturally did not like Meyer’s defense of the freedom of the person as a primary goal of a political society, and he reviewed In Defense of Freedom from that point of view (“The Faces of Freedom”, Modern Age, Spring 1964). Willmoore Kendall did not review Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom, pace Francis, he just mentioned, in his book The Conservative Affirmation (1963), that Frank Meyer was a “great though lovable sinner” – a fitting comment by such a great (though lovable, indeed) “sinner” nonconformist like Kendall. Richard M. Weaver’s review of In Defense of Freedom (“Anatomy of Freedom”, National Review, December 4, 1962) was mixed – very generous and critical as well, as was proper for an educated thinker, but nothing damning of the kind that Mr. Francis would like to suggest. And what about Whittaker Chambers? Well, In Defense of Freedom was published in (the Fall of) 1962, but Chambers died in 1961! Though he was a preternaturally gifted author, it would seem pretty supernatural for him to review a book published a year after his own death!

Fifth, Mr. Francis is outraged that Mr. Devine criticized him (absolutely correctly, in my reading of Francis’ earlier column) for denouncing “fusionist conservatism for its preoccupation with its ‘pet abstractions’ of liberty, national security and the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Well, that is the point we have already raised: the paleoconservative allergy to any abstract, universal concepts or ideas. But what is Mr. Francis’ response now? “Of course, my point was not to denounce or reject these concepts in themselves but to criticize conservatives for having turned them into little more than convenient slogans and catchphrases. I have been writing columns and articles for literally decades defending all these concepts…” So, Mr. Francis first criticized liberty, national security and the Judeo-Christian tradition as “pet abstractions”, then claims to have defended them “for literally decades.” Very well, but a few paragraphs later, Mr. Francis contradicts himself once again by referring to the “pet abstractions of ‘liberty, national security, and the Judeo-Christian tradition’” but this time adding “and I have no idea what any of that means.” In other words, Mr. Francis has just confessed that he had no idea about what he had defended literally for decades!!! Exactly.

Finally, Mr. Francis likes to pretend that he – and his fellow paleoconservatives – are pretty hard, cold-headed realists, dealing with power, unlike fusionists, who are politically irrelevant and obsessed with abstractions. How can a movement that produced one nominee for President (Barry Goldwater), one President (Ronald Reagan) and still attracts the loyalty of tens and hundreds of Congressmen and state legislators and governors be considered politically irrelevant? What power have the paleos produced, except the late Governor George Wallace? Who are the paleo-Congressmen, beyond one or two? Who was the last paleo-success at the ballots? Was his name Ross Perot, or Pat Buchanan? Were they successful? Realistically speaking, fusionism is a viable political creed, attracting the loyalty of both politicians and millions of voters. Samuel Francis is a paleo-general without either paleo-officers or paleo-soldiers, as relevant as P. G. T. Beauregard in 1867.

Polemika byla publikována na stránkách internetového magazínu dne 10.3.2004

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