Opening the Conservative Mind

May 19, 2009

Opening the Conservative Mind

New Zealander K.R. Bolton has sent for my benefit a self-published work, Thinkers of the Right: Challenging Materialism, which is one of the most enlightening studies of the interwar Right I”€™ve encountered in years. Its author, who explained to me that no New Zealand academic or commercial press would touch his “€œextremist”€ material, lives in a corner of the world that is even more PC than Obamaland. Bolton’s lack of acceptability stems from the fact that he discusses his subjects, including pro-fascist New Zealanders and Australians, without savaging them. That is to say, he has the nerve to write about these people without exhibiting the Stalinist reflex of anti-fascist outrage.

An advantage of this approach is that it allows Bolton’s readership, which is presumably quite small, to form some idea of what fascist sympathizers were actually like. From listening to Jonah Goldberg or Glenn Beck, one might think these types were predecessors of Robert Reich, Michael Lerner, and Hillary Clinton, that is, fans of egalitarian politics and affirmative-action programs. From reading European antifascists, one might take away another equally misleading impression, namely that fascists were and are Christian fanatics who oppose Muslim immigration into Europe and who mumble disapprovingly about gay marriage. Somehow these attitudes, if left unchecked, we are led to believe, would lead to another Nazi Holocaust, and therefore it is necessary to push entire countries into mind-altering, reeducation programs to prevent this disastrous outcome. All of Bolton’s subjects saw themselves as being at war with “€œmaterialism,”€ which they associated interchangeably with consumer capitalism and Marxist socialism. Most of Bolton’s figures held negative views about Jews as being implicated in both forms of the materialism they condemned.

But this particular prejudice did not affect some of Bolton’s case studies, like Italian proto-fascist Filippo Marinetti, Irish poet W.B. Yeats and Japanese militarist Yukio Mishima, none of whom was particularly exercised over the role of Jews in the cultural decadence they attacked. Other fascist sympathizers treated by Bolton, such as English poet and Franco-supporter Roy Campbell and New Zealander Rex Fairburn, were Catholic converts. The last two resonated to the Catholic sense of authority and to Catholic hierarchy, and they espoused their own variations of neo-medieval corporatism and guild socialism. But others cited in Bolton’s book, particularly the greatest Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, were unmistakably Protestant; and two other fascisant literary giants, D.H. Lawrence and Gabriel D”€™Annunzio, were exultantly neo-pagan and effusively anti-Christian.

A question that occurred to me while reading Thinkers of the Right is whether or not American “€œconservatives”€ would recognize Bolton’s subjects as fellow-rightists. Such a question would obviously not apply to neoconservatives and FOX-news aficionados, groups whose views of “€œconservatism”€ have nothing to do with any imaginable authentic Right. Unless one associates the Right with a democratic welfare state, the oratory of Martin Luther King, fighting intergalactically for “€œdemocratic values,”€ and backing the Likud Party to the hilt, it is hard to find any fit between our mainstream “€œconservatives”€ and GOP boosters and any historic Right. But even given the non-rightist character of these faux conservatives, where does one place the Ron Paul supporters, the Constitution Party, and other groups that have positioned themselves outside of our establishment politics? Certainly such Americans would have trouble recognizing themselves in the ideas that Bolton ascribes to his rightist and often pro-fascist subjects.

I would have two answers to this, one of which I am taking from David Gordon and the other of which is my own. First it might be useful to distinguish between being on the current economic right and being a rightist in any theoretical sense. In the present political context, being an opponent of the welfare state and of a highly centralized public administration and wishing to free the economy from both is a conservative stand. Given the alternatives, there is no other position that a non-leftist would be able to take without assisting the Left to gain further control over our social institutions and our lives. But a world of self-actualizing individuals held together by economic transactions is certainly not a future that any real rightist would hope for. At the same time, it is possible that a rightist would approve of various stands that a self-described libertarian, say, Ron Paul would be taking on specific issues, such as the Federal Reserve System or the piecemeal nationalization of the American economy. Therefore the real Right’s present-day alliance with libertarians would be dictated by circumstances.

Another answer I would give to the question posed above is that the Right’s beliefs stay constant but its responses will vary from one age to the next. The Right always believes as a matter of principle and observation that human beings are naturally unequal and that hierarchy is essential for a sound society. It accepts the person as a spiritual being but rejects the idea of individuals liberated from traditional familial and communal contexts. It is also categorically against such abstract concepts as “€œhuman rights”€ and “€œglobal democracy,”€ recognizing in these rhetorical labels instruments for the expansion of managerial power and global social engineering.  But having provided this list of general beliefs, it is imperative to add that rightists react differently to what they perceive as challenges from the Left. At different times and in different cultures they have proposed different alternatives; and they have not always focused blame for what they see as social derailments in a prudent or accurate manner.

It is also less relevant for identifying Bolton’s subjects what they proposed as an alternative to international capitalism or socialism than their concern with social order and traditional hierarchies. Note this is not being offered as a defense of the ludicrous ideas about money or anti-Semitic fixations of an Ezra Pound or the Australian journalist P.R. Stephensen, who is another of Bolton’s subject. It is rather an attempt to distinguish what is quintessentially rightist from what some rightists might have embraced as policy positions, or whims, in different periods.

Moreover, there is a distinction to be made between the political and aesthetic Rights. One could be on both or either, a point that I was made aware of while reading a long review of my book Conservatism in America in the journal Quadrant by one of Australia’s premier poets and novelists Peter Kocan. The reviewer commends my book as “€œa tale of irony”€ about “€œhow a false notion that led a movement and a whole superpower astray became in the end the plain truth.”€ Kocan is amused by my story of how the changing conservative movement has continued to “€œthrow people off the bus”€ and about how this movement came to “€œpeddle “€˜abstract universals”€™ applicable to anything,”€ while serving as a front for the neoconservative ascent to world power.

At the same time, Kocan takes me to task for not embracing the ideal of the European counterrevolution. He sees me as fixated on the small-town Protestant, bourgeois character of the American Right, while not recognizing that “€œthe Burkean example that was a florid import of the 1950s now stands as the only proper recourse for what remains of the true American Right.”€ Although one could retort that none of this has much to do with the American historical experience and even less with the contemporary European, it seems that Kocan is not speaking about politics. He is referring to a sensibility that celebrates “€œgratitude rather than grievance”€ and which is aligned with the Cavalier rather than the Puritan view of life.

According to Kocan, it is the legacy of American Puritanism that lives on in “€œour regimes of political correctness with their rage to police all life to the last inch.”€ He notes that I too ascribe this lunacy to a form of degenerate Protestantism but continue to find merit in the older tradition that became twisted into our current political culture. I shall readily concede my weakness for America’s bourgeois Protestant character as the source of its moral strength and social cohesion. Nor am I sure that one could draw as straight a line as Kocan thinks between the now eroded Puritan heritage and our present, anarcho-tyrannical regime, one that tramples on biblical morality while enforcing special rights for what was once considered plain weirdness. I would also note that what the Right arose to protect, and what Bolton’s subjects hoped to bring back, was an ordered, disciplined society. I”€™m not quite sure that Peter Kocan’s Cavalier mentality would fit in with this vision, although it does represent an aesthetic protest against the kind of world the Left built. By the way, despite this quibble, I do recommend Kocan’s literary work unconditionally. He is the most brilliant novelist now writing in the English language.

Pay to Play - Put your money where your mouth is and subscribe for an ad-free experience and to join the world famous Takimag comment board.