Conservative politic attitudes. Varieties. Burke. Coleridge and Wordsworth

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by Carlos Barrio

Political philosophy that emphasizes conserving as much as possible of the present economic, social, and political order.

The term conservatism, although it has had different implications in varying historical and geographical contexts, is best reserved to denote a preference for institutions and practices that have evolved historically and that are thus manifestations of continuity and stability. Political thought, from its beginnings, contains many strains that can be retrospectively labelled conservative, but it was not until the late 18th century that conservatism began to develop as a political attitude and movement reacting against the French Revolution of 1789. The noun seems to have been first used after 1815 by French Bourbon restorationist such as François-René, vicomte de Chateaubriand. It was used to describe the British Tory Party in 1830 by John Wilson Croker, the editor of The Quarterly Review; and John Calhoun, a formulator of conservative minority rights against majority dictatorship in the United States, also used the term in the 1830s. The generally acknowledged originator of modern, articulated conservatism (although he never employed the term) was the British parliamentarian and political writer Edmund Burke in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Pro-parliamentarian opponents of the French Revolution, such as Burke, believed that the violent, untraditional, and uprooting methods of the Revolution outweighed and corrupted its liberating ideals. More authoritarian opponents, such as the polemicist and diplomat Joseph de Maistre, also rejected the ideals themselves. The general revulsion against the course of events in France provided conservatives with an opportunity for restoring the pre-Revolutionary traditions, and a sudden flowering of more than one brand of conservative philosophy followed.


Conservative attitudes

Because Burke's case against radicalism and revolution has also influenced liberals, there is often no sharp distinction between liberals and conservatives in action. In philosophy, however, conservatism has maintained certain sharply nonliberal assumptions about human nature.

Whether intentionally or unconsciously, whether literally or metaphorically, for example, conservatives tend to assume in politics the Christian doctrine of man's innate original sin, and herein lies a key distinction between conservatives and liberals. Men are not born naturally free or good (conservatives assume) but are naturally prone to anarchy, evil, and mutual destruction. What the 18th-century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau denounced as the "chains" that hinder man's "natural goodness," are for Burkeans the props that make man good. These "chains" (society's traditional restrictions on the ego) fit man into a rooted, durable framework, without which ethical behaviour and responsible use of liberty are impossible.

The conservative temperament may be, but need not be, identical with conservative politics or right-wing economics; it may sometimes accompany left-wing politics or economics. Regardless of a conservative's politics or economics, however, it can be said that two characteristics of the conservative temperament are: a distrust of human nature, of rootless ness, of untested innovations; and a corresponding trust in unbroken historical continuity and in traditional frameworks within which human affairs may be conducted. Such a framework may be religious or cultural or may be given no abstract or institutional expression at all. In relation to the latter aspect, many authorities on conservatism--a minority in France and a majority in England--consider conservatism an inarticulate state of mind and not at all an ideology. Liberalism argues; conservatism simply is. When conservatism becomes ideologized, logical, and self-conscious, then it resembles the liberal rationalism that it opposes. According to this British approach, logical deductive reasoning is too doctrinaire, too 18th century. Whereas the liberal and rationalist mind consciously articulates abstract blueprints, the conservative mind unconsciously incarnates concrete traditions. And, because conservatism embodies rather than argues, its best insights are almost never developed into sustained theoretical works equal to those of liberalism and radicalism.

Conservatism is often associated with some traditional and established form of religion. After 1789, the appeal of religion redoubled for those craving security in an age of chaos. The Roman Catholic Church, because its roots are in the monarchic Middle Ages, has appealed to more conservatives than any other religion. Himself a Church of England Protestant, Burke praised Catholicism as "the most effectual barrier" against radicalism. But conservatism has had no dearth of Protestant and strongly anticlerical adherents also.

Conservatives typically view society as a single organism and condemn as "rationalist blueprints" the attempts of progressives to plan society in advance from pure reason instead of letting it evolve naturally and unconsciously, flowering from the deep roots of tradition. They dismiss a liberal society as "atomistic," meaning composed of disrupted elements held together merely mechanically. A society, they argue, has to be rendered whole by religion, idealism, shared historical experiences, commitment to its long-standing political institutions, and by the emotions of reverence, cooperation, and loyalty; a society, they believe, can, to the contrary, be rendered atomistic by materialism, class war, excessive laissez-faire economics, greedy profiteering, over analytical intellectuality, subversion of shared institutions, insistence on rights above duties, and by the emotions of scepticism and cynicism. Except for the German Romantic school, conservatives do not carry their conceptions of the organic wholeness of society to the extreme at which the individual becomes nothing, society everything, for they recognize that, at that extreme, one no longer has conservatism but totalitarian statism.

Varieties of conservatism

The Burkean foundations

Burke did more than any other thinker to turn the intellectual tide from a rationalist contempt for the past to a traditionalist reverence for it. An Irishman, he loved England, including its established Anglican Church and its nobility, with an outsider's passion. In 1765 he became private secretary to Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd marquees of Rockingham, the head of the less liberal wing of the Whig Party. Against the untraditional tyranny of George III, Burke defended the American Revolution of 1776, which he viewed as being in defence of traditional liberties, but attacked the radical French Revolution of 1789 as tyranny by mobs and deracinated theorizers. At a time (1790) when the French Revolution still seemed a bloodless utopia, he predicted its later phase of terror and dictatorship, not by any lucky blind guess but by an analysis of its devaluation of tradition and inherited values.

Indeed, the core of Burke's thought and of conservatism is fear of rootless ness. Rousseau's Social Contract of 1762 had favoured a contract merely among the living, to arrange government for their mutual benefit. Burke, instead, argued:

Society is indeed a contract . . . [but] as the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. . . . Changing the state as often as there are floating fancies, . . . no one generation could link with the other. Men would be little better than the flies of a summer.

Burke's veneration of the past may be contrasted with the rationalist hostility of Karl Marx, the most influential social critic of modern times: "The legacy of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare upon the brains of the living." But for Burke the contract is with "the future" as well as with the past, and he thus urges improvement, as long as it is evolutionary: "A disposition to preserve and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman."

Burke was defending not conservatism in the abstract but, rather, one concrete instance of it, the unwritten British constitution. His arguments, however, were not always consistent. Sometimes he justified that constitution by "natural rights"; more often by "prescriptive right." Natural rights meant a universal code external to any given constitution; prescriptive right, a local code authoritative (prescriptive) by virtue of its age and its links with the past, which are prima facie evidence of its value. Sometimes he argued that natural rights preceded the constitution and gave it "latent wisdom." But, when arguing against French rationalists, who would justify their own revolutionary constitution by natural rights, he argued instead, and more typically:

Our constitution is a prescriptive constitution . . . [whose] sole authority is that it has existed time out of mind . . . without any reference whatever to any other more general or prior right.

Burke shocked his century by his brutal frankness in defending "illusions" and "prejudices" as socially necessary. In doing so, however, he was, in fact, being not so much a cynic as one of the few old-fashioned Christians among 18th-century intellectuals. He was an old-fashioned Christian in the sense of believing man innately depraved, innately steeped in original sin, and incapable of bettering himself by his feeble reason. So defined, man could be tamed only by following an ethically trained elite and by education in "prejudices," such as family, religion, and aristocracy. He called landed aristocrats "the great oaks" and "proper chieftains," provided they tempered their rule by a spirit of timely reform from above and remained within the constitutional framework. He defended the Church of England for its political as well as its religious function, "To keep moral, civil, and political bonds, together binding human understanding."


Coleridge and Wordsworth

After Burke, the English poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth were significant figures in the formulation and expression of conservative sentiment. They began, however, as utopian liberals supporting the French Revolution. Wordsworth spoke for a whole generation of European intellectuals with his famous salute to the new dawn in France: "Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven." Disillusionment followed, and Coleridge and Wordsworth reacted against liberalism and rationalism and turned to traditional monarchy and the Church of England.

In 1798 Wordsworth and Coleridge jointly published their book of poems, Lyrical Ballads, marking the revolt of the human heart against abstract 18th-century rationalists and thereby helping to create a new philosophical climate. Conservatism was permanently influenced by Coleridge's prose works: Lay Sermons, 1816-17; Biographia Literaria, 1817; Philosophical Lectures, 1818-19; Aids to Reflection in the Formation of a Manly Character, on the Several Grounds of Prudence, Morality, and Religion, 1825; and his various Letters and Specimens of Table Talk. His public lectures exercised an indirect influence by moulding the minds of university students who later became national leaders.

According to Coleridge, society divided its functions among different "class orders." Each class had its valuable function, but this did not necessarily include the right to vote and rule. That right was best left to an ethically trained aristocracy, functioning within the strict lawful limits of Parliament. All classes, Coleridge argued, must cooperate harmoniously within the organic unity of the constitution. His greatest influence on practical politics was through his disciple Benjamin Disraeli, later to be Conservative prime minister, and his disciple's disciple, Sir Winston Churchill. Coleridge considered businessmen often subversive, not conservative; they allegedly gnawed at the foundations of Christian monarchy by substituting a newfangled, un-Christian religion known as economic profit. Thus Coleridge, defining "shopkeepers" as "the least patriotic and the least conservative" class, fought against the Whig Reform Bill of 1832, which made "hucksters" the dominant voting group.

Maistre and Latin conservatism

It would convey an unbalanced picture of conservatism to present only the moderate and British brand founded by Burke and to omit the more extreme and Latin brand founded by Maistre (died 1821). Whereas Burkean conservatism is evolutionary, the conservatism of Maistre is counterrevolutionary. Both favour tradition against the innovations of 1789, but their traditions differ: the former fights against 1789 for the sake of traditional liberties, the latter for the sake of traditional authority. The former is not authoritarian but constitutionalist--and often parliamentary--whereas the latter, in its stress on the authority of some traditional elite, is often justifiably called not conservative but reactionary. To call it totalitarian, however, would be to go much too far, for its authority does not try to be "total," in the sense of taking over the total personality, the total culture, but is restricted to politics--and sometimes also religion. The distinction between the authoritarian and the totalitarian separates even the most reactionary conservative from the totalitarian Nazis and Communists.

After the breakdown of the French Revolution, Maistre became the most influential philosophical spokesman for the ancien régime. Against the slogan "liberty, equality, fraternity," he seemed almost personally to embody the slogan "throne and altar." His program consisted of a restoration of hereditary monarchy, but a more religious and less frivolous monarchy than before. He was an international refugee after the French, during the Revolution, invaded his native Savoy--then a French-speaking province of the Italian-speaking monarchy of Piedmont-Sardinia. He became for 14 years Sardinian ambassador to Russia, where his restorationist faith was strengthened by the example of the absolute monarchy still functioning there.

Both restorationist and evolutionary conservatives defended monarchy as a social cement needed to hold society together, to keep it "organic," not "atomistic." But, while the Maistre school (key source of conservative thought in Spain and Italy as well as France) defends monarchy as absolute, the evolutionary British school defends it merely as being "pragmatic"; that is, useful. Maistre and many continental monarchists carried their belief in the monarchy to the extreme of demanding "love" even for an "unjust" ruler, earthly or heavenly:

We find ourselves in a realm whose sovereign has proclaimed his laws. . . . Some . . . appear hard and even unjust . . . What should be done? Leave the realm, perhaps? Impossible: the realm is everywhere. . . . Since we start with the supposition that the master exists and that we must serve him absolutely, is it not better to serve him, whatever his nature, with love than without it?

This chain of authoritarian reasoning reached its climax in a logical if inhuman paradox: "The more terrible God appears to us . . . the more our prayers must become ardent. . . ." Cruel as these arguments sound, the motive of the personally mild Maistre was humane: revolts against cruel authority would inflict even crueller sufferings on mankind. He drew from the French Revolution the lesson that submission to traditional authority, though admittedly a bitter pill, was Europe's cure for a still more bitter chaos.

Maistre's politics were a theological drama in which "order" (his key concept) was angelic, "chaos" diabolic, and "revolution" original sin. Seduced by the glittering Social Contract of Rousseau, giddy and inexperienced nations might lust after democracy or a plebeian Bonapartist dictatorship. But they would come to a perfectly dreadful end, which would serve them right for provoking the wages of sin: "Because she [Europe] is guilty, she suffers" (1810). From suffering, Maistre argued, Europe would learn that the purest order is a fatherly Christian monarchy. Even kings must avoid rocking the boat of order with liberal "innovations": Europe must "suspect" the word "reform." In Du Pape (1817; "Concerning the Pope"), he analyzed "order" further: its hierarchical pyramid logically required one supreme apex. That apex must be no earthly monarch, of which there were so many, but the union of earthly and spiritual power in the papacy.

The vast extent of the instability following the French Revolution surprised even its supporters, and the problem of how to restabilize society emerged as one of some practical importance. According to Maistre's Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg (left unfinished 1821; "Evening Conversations in St. Petersburg"), the solution was more faith and more police. That combination he summed up in his own frank formula: "the pope and the executioner." The pope was the positive bulwark of order: he gave faith. The executioner was the negative bulwark: he suppressed disorder. Himself an intellectual, Maistre indicted intellectuals as "rebellious" and "insolent" fomenters of disorder.

Maistre, this very secular exalter of clericalism, resembled not the Church Fathers but the very rationalists he attacked. He arrived at his glorification of unreason and of divine authority not by mystic intuition--not even by unthinking acceptance of traditional authority--but by using his own mind independently, rationally, and with steps of deductive logic. Though Maistre would never have admitted it, he might be characterized as the last abstract rationalist of the whole Voltairean Age of Reason. Even more than the rationalist Voltaire and as much as the rationalist Jacobins, Maistre believed in pure and absolute ideas, although his idea was absolute authority rather than absolute reason. In Maistre the destructive deductive logic of the 18th century was carried so far that it destroyed even itself--pure reason committing suicide for the sake of pure order.

This division into Burke and Maistre wings does not mean both were equal in importance or influence. No work of Maistre or any other anti-Jacobin has approached the influence of Burke's classic essay. Burke, above all, was the first to formulate the rebuttal to the French Revolution; his arguments were borrowed, sometimes word for word, by all later conservatives, including the restorationists. Maistre's rigid hierarchical conservatism is in the latter part of the 20th century dying out, whereas Burke's more flexible brand is stronger than ever, permeating all parties of the West, emphatically including democratic Socialists with their increasing stress, in Great Britain and Germany, on what a Fabian Socialist has called, in good Burkean language, "the inevitability of gradualness."

French conservatism after Maistre presents a diversified range of views, from the thought of Charles Maurras, the far-right editor of L'Action Française who seemed more fascist than conservative and became a Nazi collaborator, to the anti-authoritarian Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America (1835-40) and the most Burkean French critic of the Revolution and of plebiscitarian mass democracy. To some extent, however, Tocqueville, an evolutionary parliamentarian, can also be regarded as a liberal thinker. In between Maurras and Tocqueville come the great anti-Jacobin Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine; the philosophical novelist Maurice Barrès, more a nationalist than anything else but conservative in his stress on organic roots; and Louis-François Veuillot, the editor after 1843 of the newspaper L'Univers Réligieux and a clerical restorationist who ably readapted Maistre to the industrial modern world. An influential right-wing extremist, less clerical and more statist than Maistre and Veuillot, was Louis-Jacques-Maurice de Bonald, the apologist for Napoleon's empire and then for the Bourbon Restoration.