The Wretched of the Earth: The American Culture War

Liberals and Conservatives first became lables for political tendencies in the aftermath of the French Revolution.  Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, but the philosophical distinction between them was settled by the mid-nineteenth century, thanks to Edmund Burke.  After the Revolution, Burke argued that what really separated its partisans and opponents were not atheism and faith, or democracy and aristocracy, or even equality and liberty, but instead two very different conceptions of human nature.  Burke believed that since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others; that society is metaphysically prior to any notion of radical autonomy.  The unit of political life is society not individuals.

What makes conservatives conservative are the implications they have drawn from Burke’s view of society.  Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations towards posterity, these preceed rights.  For Burke and Continental Conservatives change is best implimented slowly through explicit political institutions.  Burke was not hostile to change, only to doctrines and principles that did violence to preexisting opinions and institutions  that were constitutive to a well functioning society.  This was the deepest basis of Burke’s critique of the French Revolution, it was not a defense of privilege.

Philosophically, liberalism traces its roots back to the Wars of Religion, the term ‘liberal’ was not used as a partisan label until the Spanish Constitutionalists took it over in the early 19th century.  It was only later, in confrontation with European Conservatism that clarity rearding the social, political content of ‘liberalism’ became clear.  Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill give individuals priority over society, on both moral and anthropological grounds.  Here liberals assume that society is a construct of human freedom and that whatever we inherit can be changed through free agency.  This is what makes liberals throughout Europe suspicious to custom and tradition, the twin ancient enmormites that have always been used to justify privilege and injustice.  Liberals and Conservatives recognize the need for constraints, but they beliveve that they must come from principles that transcend particular societies and customs.  Perhaps they were envisioning natural law, perhaps they actually meant to affirm the administrative despotism that grounds the Kantian ethos, so prominant througout Prussian and Germanic parliments.

The quarrel between liberals and conservatives is essentially a fight over the nature of the human being and their relation to society.  These are moral questions.  The quarrel between revolutonaries and reactionaries has little to do with nature, its a quarrel over history!

The term ‘reactionary’ migrated from the natural sciences to European political thought in the middle 19th century, thanks to Montesquieu, who had picked it up from Newton.  Originally though, it was not associated with the concept of revolution, which were thought to be rare and unpredictable events, not part of some process of historical unfolding.  All that changed in 1789, when partisans of the French Revolution squared off against those who spoke openly of a Counter-Revolution that would set the world right.  The euphoria of rebellion, the collapse of the Old Regime, the Terror, and the subsequent rise of Napoleon gave history a secular eschatological charge, which destroyed many of the remaining moderates.  For European radicals, the French Revolution was a cosmic epiphany that began an unstoppable process of collective human self emancipation.  For reactionaries, too, it was apocalyptic event, signaling the end of a process that had placed Catholic Europe at the summit of world civilizations.  One group saw a radiant future, the other saw nothing but carnage.  Revolutionaries and reactionaries did agreee on one thing:  that thinking seriously about politics means thinking about the course of history, not human nature.

There have been two types of reactionaries, though with different attitudes toward historical change.  One type dreams of a return to some real or imaginary state of perfection that existed before the revolution.  French aristocrats hoped to restore the Bourbon dynasty, Russian Old Believers who wanted a recovery of Orthodox rites, Pre-Raphaelite painters who rejected the conventions of Mannerism, Morrisites and Rushinites who raged against the machine, all these were what you might call restorative reactionaries.

A second type, call lthem redemptive reactionaries, they take for granted that the revolution is a fait accompli and that there is no going back.  But they are not historical pesimists.  They believe that the only sane response to an apocalypse is to provoke another, in the hopes of starting over.  Ever since the French Revolution, reactionaries have seen themselves working toward counter-revolutions that would destroy the present state of affairs and transport the nation, faith or race to a new age of redemption of the past without returning there.

This was the shared vision of Josepth de Maistre, the most bloody-minded of the French counterrevolutionaries, an early modern prototype of fascism.  Unless we forget the likes of Oriana Fallaci, Fascists hated so many aspects of modern society, they were anything but nostalgic for Church and Crown.  They had contempt for weak German aristocrats with their dueling scars and precious manners, and reserved their nostalgia for a new Rome to be brought into being through storms of steel.

Perhaps only our Founders understood that traditional European conservatives would never acknowlege the efficacy that is exclaimed in the Declaration.  Conservatives throughout Europe were always interested into the constructive role the habits and moral mores required to assist in any civilization grounded in individual liberty and equality.

The real news for the American left is political apocalypticism.  This has been brewing among socialist and libertarian politicos since the 1990’s.  Although the first neo-conservatives were disappointed liberals like Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer and Norman Podhoretz who saw the failures of the Great Society as indicments of domestic Socialism; most early neo-conservaties began to appreciate the wisdom enuciated by Burke regarding assumptions about human nature.

Kristol’s famous quip that neo-conservatives were liberals mugged by reality captured the imagination of most Americans.

The undoing of the social, political impact of American counter-culture began with publications like Commentary and Public Interest.  This vanguard projected itself as standing against the adversaral cultural and intellectual currents antithetical to the American Revolution.

The fever pitch of white hot insurgency began with Richard John Neuhaus’ First Things’ article titled ‘The End of Democracy:  The Judical Usurpation of Politics”.  The opening editoral salvo was everything:  “law as it is presently made by the judiciary, has declared its independence from morality, and that due to judical activism, the government of the United States no longer governs by the consent of the governed, we have reached the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime, we must consider responses ranging from noncompliance to resistance to civil disobedience, ultimately to morally justified revoluton.”

It’s a bit much, but its arc and presense is sound.

Perhaps Leo Naphta, the consumptive furloughed Jesuit in Thomas Mann’s ‘Magic Mountain’, who prowls the corridors of a Swiss sanatorium raging against the modern Enlightenment all the while looking for disciples.  What infuriates Naphta is that history cannot be reversed, so he dreams of revenge against it.  He speaks of a coming apocalypse, a period of cruelty and cleansing, after which man’s original ignornace will be returned and new forms of authority will be established.  Mann did not model Naphta on Edmund Burke or Chateaubriand or Bismark or any other traditional European conservative.  He modeled him on George Lukacs, the Hungarian Communist philosopher and onetime commissar who loathed liberals and convervatives alike.

About William Holland

Systematic Theologian/International Relations
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