America’s Left Conservative Heritage

June 16, 2009

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Recent dialogue between Kevin R.C. Gutzman, Christian Kopff and Tom Piatak concerning the tension between classical liberal-libertarians and traditionalist conservatives reminded me of an observation from my Portuguese “national-anarchist” colleague Flavio Goncalves concerning the clarion call issued by Chuck Norris a while back: “Seems like the US Right is as revolutionary as the South American Left? Your country confuses me.”

It does indeed seem that most of the serious dissidents in America are on the Right nowadays, and I think this can be understood in terms of America’s unique political heritage. American rightists typically regard themselves as upholders and defenders of American traditions, while American liberals tend to admire the socialism and cultural leftism of the European elites. However, the republican political philosophy derived from the thought of Locke, Montesquieu and Jefferson that found its expression in such definitive American documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and of which modern neo-classical liberalism and libertarianism are outgrowths, is historically located to the left of European socialism.

A variety of thinkers from all over the spectrum have recognized this. For instance, Russell Kirk somewhat famously remarked that conservatives and socialists had more in common with one another that either had with libertarians. Murray Rothbard observed that “conservatism was the polar opposite of liberty; and socialism, while to the ?left? of conservatism, was essentially a confused, middle-of-the-road movement. It was, and still is, middle-of-the-road because it tries to achieve liberal ends by the use of conservative means.” Seymour Martin Lipset affirmed Rothbard’s thesis:

Given that the national conservative tradition in many other countries was statist, the socialists arose within this value system and were much more legitimate than they could be in America…Until the depression of the 1930s and the introduction of welfare objectives by President Roosevelt and the New Deal, the AFL was against minimum wage legislation and old age pensions. The position taken by (Samuel) Gompers and others was, what the state gives, the state can take away; the workers can depend only on themselves and their own institutions…Hence, the socialists in America were operating against the fact that there was no legitimate tradition of state intervention, of welfarism. In Europe, there was a legitimate conservative tradition of statism and welfarism. I would suggest that the appropriate American radicalism, therefore, is much more anarchist than socialist.

Back in 1912, when the German Social Democrats won 112 seats in the Reichstag and one-third of the vote, Kaiser Wilhelm II wrote a letter to a friend in which he said that he really welcomed the rise of the socialists because their statist positions were much to be preferred to the liberal bourgeoisie, whose antistatism he did not like. The Kaiser went on to say that, if the socialists would only drop antipatriotism and antimilitarism, he could be one of them. The socialists wanted a strong Prussian-German state which was welfare oriented, and the Kaiser also wanted a strong state. It was the pacifism and the internationalism of the socialists that bothered him, not their socialism. In the American context, the “conservative” in recent decades has come to connote an extreme form of liberalism; that is, antistatism. In its purest forms, I think of Robert Nozick philosophically, of Milton Friedman economically, and of Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater politically.

Thomas Sowell has provided some interesting insights into what separates the Left and Right in contemporary American discourse. Both Left and Right are derivatives of eighteenth century radicalism, with the Left being a descendent of the French Revolution and the Right being a descendent of the American Revolution. What separates the legacies of these two revolutions is not their radicalism or departure from throne-and-altar traditionalism, but their differing views on human nature, the nature of human society, and the nature of politics. Both revolutions did much to undermine traditional systems of privileged hierarchy. After all, how “traditional” were the American revolutionaries who abolished the monarchy, disestablished the Church, constitutionally prohibited the issuance of titles of nobility, constitutionally required a republican form of government for the individual states and added a bill of rights as a postscript to the nation’s charter document? One can point to the Protestant influences on the American founding that coincide with the Enlightenment influences, but how “traditional” is Protestantism itself? Is not Protestantism the product of a rebellion against established religious authorities that serves as a kind of prelude to a latter rebellion to established political authorities?

I would maintain that what separates the modern Right and Left is not traditionalism versus radicalism, but meritocracy versus egalitarianism. For the modern Left, equality is considered to be a value in its own right, irrespective of merit, whether individual or collective in nature. The radical provisions of the U.S. Constitution, for instance, aimed at eliminating systems of artificial privilege. No longer would heads of state, clerics, or aristocrats receive their position simply by virtue of inheritance, patronage or nepotism, but by virtue of individual ability and achievement. No longer would an institution such as the Church sustain itself through political privilege, but through the soundness of its own internal dynamics. To be sure, these ideals have been applied inconsistently throughout American history, and all societies are a synthesis of varying cultural and ideological currents. For instance, it is clear that nepotism remains to some degree. How else could the likes of George W. Bush ever become head of state?

Yet, for the Left, equality overrides merit. With regards to race, gender or social relations, for example, it is not sufficient to simply remove barriers designed to keep ethnic minorities, women or homosexuals down regardless of their individual abilities or potential contributions to society. Instead, equality must be granted regardless of any previous individual or collective achievement to the point of lowering academic or professional standards for the sake of achieving such equality. This kind of egalitarian absolutism is also apparent with regards to issues like the use of women in military combat or the adoption of children by same-sex couples. The Left often frames these issues not in terms of whether the use of female soldiers is best in terms of military standards (perhaps it is) or what is best for the children involved or whether the parenting skills of same-sex couples is on par with those of heterosexual couples (perhaps they are), but in terms of whether women should simply have the “right” to a military career or whether same-sex couples should simply have “equal rights” to adopt children, apparently with such concerns as military efficiency, child welfare and parental competence being dismissed as irrelevant.

To frame the debate in terms of tradition versus radicalism would seem to be setting up a false dichotomy. Edmund Burke, the fierce critic of the French Revolution considered by many to be the godfather of modern conservatism, was actually on the left-wing of the British politics of his time. For instance, he favored the independence of Ireland and the American colonies and even defended India against imperial interests. A deep dig into Burke’s writings reveals him to have been something of a philosophical anarchist. His opposition to the French Revolution was not simply because it was a revolution or because it was radical, but because of the specific content of the ideology of the revolutionaries who aimed to level and reconstruct French society along prescriptive lines. The American Revolution was carried out by those with an appreciation for the limits of politics and the limitations imposed by human nature, while the French Revolution was the prototype for the modern totalitarian revolutions carried out by the Bolsheviks, Nazis (whom Alain De Benoist has characterized as “Brown Jacobins”), Maoists , Kim Il-Sung and the Khmer Rouge.

One can certainly reject the hyper-egalitarianism championed by the Left and still favor far-reaching political or social change. It would be hard to mistake Ernst Junger for an egalitarian, yet he was contemptuous of the Wilhelmine German military’s practice of selecting officers on the basis of their class position, family status or political patronage rather than on their combat experience. He preferred a military hierarchy ordered on the basis of merit rather than ascribed status. Junger’s Weimar-era writings are filled with a loathing for the social democratic regime, yet he called for an elitist worker-soldier “conservative revolution” rather than a return to the monarchy.

Nor does political radicalism imply the abandonment of historic traditions. I, for one, advocate many things that are quite radical by conventional standards. Yet I am extremely uncomfortable with left-wing pet projects such as the elimination of “offensive” symbols like the Confederate flag; the alteration of the calendar along PC lines (C.E. and B.C.E instead of A.D. and B.C); the attacks on traditional holidays like Christmas or Columbus Day; a rigidly secular interpretation of the First Amendment (and I’m an atheist!); and the attempted reconstruction of language along egalitarian lines (making words like “crippled” or “retarded” into swear words or the mandatory gender neutralization of pronouns). All of these things seem like a rookie league version of Rosseauan/Jacobin/Pol Potian “year zero” cultural destructionism. Nor do I wish to do away with baseball, Fourth of July fireworks displays, Civil War re-enactors or the works of Edgar Allan Poe. I am also somewhat appalled that one can receive a high school diploma or even a university degree without ever having taken a single course on the history of Western philosophy. It is not uncommon to find undergraduates who have never heard of Aristotle. If they have, they are most likely to simply dismiss him as a sexist and defender of slavery. I’ve met graduate level sociology students who can tell you all about “the social construction of gender” but have no idea who Pareto was.

The principal evil of the Cultural Marxism of present day liberalism is its fanatical egalitarianism. Unlike historic Marxists, who simply sought equality of wealth, cultural Marxists seek equality of everything, including not only class, race, or gender, but sexuality, age, looks, weight, ability, intelligence, handicap, competence, health, behavior or even species. I’ve heard leftists engage in serious discussion about the evils of “accentism.” Such equality does not exist in nature. It can only be imposed artificially, which in turn requires tyranny of the most extreme sort. The end result can only be universal enslavement in the name of universal equality. For this reason, the egalitarian Left is a profoundly reactionary outlook, as it seeks a de facto return to the societies organized on the basis of static caste systems and ascribed status that existed prior to the meritocratic revolution initiated by the Anglo-American Enlightenment.

Perhaps just as dreadful is the anti-intellectualism of Political Correctness. In many liberal and no-so-liberal circles, the mere pointing out of facts like, for instance, the extraordinarily high numbers of homicides perpetrated by African-Americans is considered a moral and ideological offense. If one of the most eminent scientists of our time, Dr. James Watson, is not immune from the sanctions imposed by the arbiters of political correctness, then who would be? Are such things not a grotesque betrayal of the intellectual, scientific and political revolution manifested in Jeffersonian ideals? Is not Political Correctness simply an effort to bring back heresy trials and inquisitors under the guise of a secularized, egalitarian, fake humanitarian ideology? The American radical tradition represents a vital “left-conservative” heritage that elevates meritocracy over both an emphasis on ascribed status from the traditional Right and egalitarianism from the Left. It is a tradition worth defending.

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