Why I Am Not A Conservative
Since the eighteenth century, conservative thinkers have responded to the West's ongoing revolution by articulating the universal principles necessary for the preservation of any social order: tradition, authority, hierarchy, community, virtue, simple civility. But by their very nature, these principles cannot be the monopoly of one party: if they are, civilization itself is in crisis, and conservatism is not enough. Conservative parties and statesmen have governed most of the West, most of the time, during the last two centuries: yet they have never permanently restored order, only slowing down or holding off the revolution for a moment.
Among American conservatives, there is an interesting undercurrent of controversy over the question of just when things started going wrong. At one extreme, the "neoconservatives" think that everything was fine until the 1960s, when the New Left messed everything up; at the other extreme are those who blame the downfall of the republic on Abraham Lincoln. All of them, however, regard the American Revolution and the Constitution as normative and authoritative -- usually unaware of the paradox involved in deriving legitimacy from a revolution.
American conservatism is an eclectic mush, compounded of religiosity, capitalism, patriotism, populism, and nostalgia for a dead past, with a seasoning of Edmund Burke and classical philosophy. There is no single, large, simple idea, no center of conviction, to give it intellectual and emotional coherence.
Somehow, however, the great mass of conservatives instinctively feel and act as one on any number of particular issues. Conservatives never think if they can possibly avoid it, and so not only is their homogeneity remarkable, so is the fact that they are usually correct. But this correctness is accidental, and therefore unreliable.
Conservatives are mere reactionaries, in the sense that they react to the initiatives of the Left, defending whatever the Left attacks, without seriously considering whether or how it should be defended. Conservatism derives a certain strength from this: because the Left is almost always wrong, conservatives are, by default, almost always right. But they are too passive and defensive; they allow the enemy to choose when and where the battles will be fought; and they never counterattack.
In the long run, conservatives' lack of a center of conviction undermines their resistance. Without a coherent and permanent alternative to offer, they inevitably end up accepting the Left's accomplished facts, no matter how hard they may have resisted its innovations. The whole history of conservatism is a series of such capitulations.
Even European conservatives have long since given up on the causes of monarchism and aristocracy: they are all committed to conserving democracy and capitalism. American conservatives seem to have given up all hope of ever repealing the Great Society programs, much less the New Deal; they never even talk about doing anything more than trimming and fixing the welfare state. As long as segregation lasted, conservatives were for it; once it had been abolished, and replaced by reverse discrimination, they scarcely skipped a beat before enlisting themselves in the cause of a color-blind society. Most conservatives can't even stand up to the Sodomy Lobby any more. Now, you really know your men are in trouble when they let themselves be pushed around by a bunch of sissies.
This is not to say that (for example) a consistent stand in favor of anti-black discrimination is preferable, in any way, to inconsistent opposition to anti-white discrimination. It is only to point out that conservatism perpetually confuses the defense of order as such with the defense of the existing order, whatever it happens to be. Since the very bases of social order are under constant attack, conservatives can only stumble from one crisis to the next, perpetually unbalanced.
All too often, conservatives cannot even identify what they are defending: they hold some inarticulate, visceral sense of "our way of life" that seems simple and self-evident to them, but cannot win over the befuddled, wavering masses, and is useless as a guide for their own action. If you don't even know what you're fighting for, you can't know how to fight for it, or even clearly identify the threats to it.
Conservatives are typically motivated by the simple desire to be left alone, to live and work and raise their families in their traditional way. They realize -- some more clearly than others -- that the liberals want to tax away all their "excess" wealth, meddle in their lives and businesses, indoctrinate their children, suppress their religion, confiscate their firearms, and generally force them to conform to the liberals' idea of the way the world should be. But they do not seem to realize just how ruthless the Left is, and they are rarely willing or able to challenge the Left's (wholly spurious) claims to moral and intellectual superiority.
Liberals are totalitarian in principle, and in as much practice as they can get away with. No one has ever bought Communism when it was sold under its own name: the Bolsheviks had to seize power in a coup, and the liberals are sneaking it into effect, bit by bit, under the concealment of euphemism and sanctimonious posturing. Their ultimate aims are exactly the same as the Communists': the destruction of religion, morality, patriotism, property, the family -- everything in society except the all-powerful government. They cannot be bargained with, or reasoned with, or pleaded with, and they will never stop. We need to do more than merely resist the Left: we need to counterattack, to stop it and smash it, once and for all.
Conservatives just don't understand the Left. If religiously inclined, they say it's the result of "godlessness"; if materialistically inclined, they say it's the result of greed and power-lust. (Each of these views contains a grain of truth. Certainly liberal politicians, as distinct from ideologues, are primarily motivated by greed and power-lust. If they were as far Left as the ideologues, they would never get elected.) The real nature of the evil is beyond their comprehension.
The history of the Left over the past two centuries shows a clear pattern of "progress," or rather degeneration, from liberalism (in its original form), to socialism, to Communism, to the New Left in its various guises (environmentalism, feminism, multiculturalism, etc.). Each form is ever more radical, ever more subversive, ever more destructive. Now, finally, the Left believes in nothing and desires nothing, not even power, except for the perverse enjoyment of destruction itself.
The essence of the contemporary Left is nihilism -- the spirit of pure negation. Leftists define their whole identity, both personally and politically, by what they are not. Whatever is normal, they are against, precisely because it is normal. Any positive or constructive content in the ideals of freedom, equality, democracy, etc., has long since been lost, leaving the ideals themselves hollow and meaningless. Of course, the Leftists are so busy destroying things that they never notice this, nor face their real motive -- the hatred of everything that exists; which is how they can be sanctimonious as well as evil.
The process has already gone too far for mere conservatism to be enough: too much has been destroyed; too many strands of tradition have been broken; the old order is dead and gone. The problem facing us now is not conservation, but reconstruction. We must, by all means, hold on to whatever survives; we must cherish the past just as much as the Left hates it. But we have to create anew, to replace what is lost.
If conservatism is not enough, what are the alternatives? What social-political force could serve as a basis for a viable, lasting new order?
There are three available. The strongest of them today is Christianity, usually invoked under the bland, ecumenical rubric of the "Judaeo-Christian tradition" (it might as well be called the Judaeo-Christo-Islamic tradition). White racism (it is worth noting -- the obvious often needs reiterating these days -- that the racism of darker peoples, although politically opposed, is morally equivalent) has been marginalized in isolated and ineffectual groupuscules. Finally, nationalism has a very real and active political role throughout the Western world -- with the conspicuous exception of America.
The Religious Right
The fundamental problem with Christianity is that it isn't true. The secondary problem with Christianity is that it has outlived its usefulness.
Every expansion of our knowledge over the past five centuries has contradicted both the letter and spirit of Biblical revelation. Given the immensity of the universe, it is ludicrous to suppose that some god created it all just as the background to the dustmote we happen to live on. Given the antiquity of the human species, and its evolution from lower forms of life, the story of Adam and Eve and their "fall" can no longer be considered anything more than a quaint Jewish fairy-tale.
Christianity was always false; now it is incredible. Long ago and far away, it was capable of inspiring awe and terror, beauty and ugliness, cathedrals and the Inquisition; now it inspires only banality. The influence of organized religion is scarcely to be seen any more, compared to what it once was. Even those who remain nominally religious are thoroughly secular in their daily lives; seriously believing and practicing Christians are exceptional -- as small a minority as they were before they grabbed control of the Roman Empire, and this time they are on their way down. Now that Christianity is once more set apart from and against the larger society, it can only survive (if at all) as a cult, pure and simple, serving its own ends.
There is no reason why the fate of Western civilization must be bound up with that of a Syrian cult. Although conservatism and Christianity have been allied since the outset of the modern age, they are ultimately incompatible and irreconcilable with each other. Conservatives defend religion because it is socially useful: but religions claim to be simply true.
Edmund Burke recommended the Anglican Church for England, the Catholic Church for France, and Hinduism for India, in blithe indifference to the truth or falsity of these religions. Charles Maurras was actually an atheist, but more Papist than the Pope, precisely because he (like the Protestants) considered Catholicism the least Christian of all Christian sects: he preferred its un-Christian excrescences to its fundamentally alien, Semitic spirit.
The conservative is instinctively pagan, and vice versa. He reveres the gods of his forefathers because their worship is a symbolic expression of the love of one's own, and because they offer supernatural sanction and protection to his way of life. Any gods will do, as long as they are old and familiar and woven into the fabric of life. As long as Christianity is old and tame, it will do nearly as well as any other, especially when it offers elaborate and beautiful rites and a picturesque, crypto-pagan mythology of saints and angels.
But Maurras was right, in this at least: the inner spirit of Christianity is radical and dangerous. It is the spirit of fanaticism -- exactly the same spirit that infuses Muslim terrorists. This can only be hidden as long as Christianity itself is hidden under traditional disguises. The Christian (to the extent that he really believes in Christianity) does not revere the gods because they guarantee our ways; he wants to force our ways to conform to God's way, as he imagines it.
The only sound and sensible policy towards religion is that of the Roman Empire, under which, as Gibbon quipped, the philosophers regarded all religions as equally false, the people regarded them as equally true, and the magistrates regarded them as equally useful. The only exceptions were those that practiced human sacrifice, like the Druids, or refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Empire, like the Christians. Unlike pagan Rome, the modern secular state does not require worship; and as long as it does not interfere with them, the Christians have no reason to challenge its legitimacy.
With Christianity at its lowest ebb since the reign of Julian, militant anticlericalism in the nineteenth-century style is worse than useless, as the rise of the new Christian Right shows. The Left has ruthlessly shoved its secular ideology down people's throats, and thereby aroused hostile and defensive reactions that threaten all the hard-won secularist gains of the past century. Even the most respectable and ordinarily sensible conservatives feel compelled to utter occasional, spastic diatribes against Darwin, like some poor soul afflicted with Tourette's syndrome.
To be sure, the Left's re-education and social-engineering projects are indifferently anti-religious and anti-social, and therefore objectionable on both counts. To the extent that Christian political activism defends traditional morality and social order, and limits its specifically Christian aims to preserving the private cult from public encroachment, it is doing a service to civilization.
There is an essential asymmetry in politics here: the religious may participate in a secular political movement, but the secular cannot participate in a religious movement. Any attempt to turn conservatism into Christian revivalism, and thereby to turn the republic into a theocracy, is inherently illegitimate and strategically self-defeating. Avowed atheists may be rare, but a clear majority of Americans are thoroughly secularized in practice, even if they remain nominally Christian; and the distrust of mixing religion with politics goes even farther and deeper.
The Racist Right
In contemporary parlance, "racism" has become an anti-concept: its purpose is not cognition, but confusion. It serves solely to blank out the mind by arousing fear and indignation. With non-whites, it is used to arouse fear of whites; with whites, it is used to arouse fear of moralistic censure and legal reprisals; it is used to arouse indignation in all unthinking "right-thinking" people. "Racism" is now of a piece with "sexism" and "homophobia" -- the only difference being that the other two were intended as anti-concepts from the beginning.
As a meaningful, political term, "racism" is the idea that one's primary loyalty is (or should be) to one's race; that one's identity is defined by one's complexion and physiognomy. At its crudest (and can it be anything but crude?) it is expressed in the nazi slogan, "Your skin is your uniform."
A seemingly inevitable concomitant to white racism is Judaeophobia -- which is rather puzzling, since Jews are white, after all. Ultra-Orthodox Jews are annoying (because they are culturally alien) but basically harmless; Left-wing Jews are even more annoying, and destructive also, but only because they are Left-wing; middle-of-the-road Jews are unexceptionable. And what about those (myself, for one) who have a trace of Jewish ancestry, but no sense of identification or connection with the Jewish people? This is a perfect example of the absurdity and viciousness of racism.
The least obvious, but perhaps greatest, problem with racism is its utter spiritual emptiness. A national and cultural renaissance, inspired by complexion and physiognomy? What could be more ludicrous?
Conservatism and nationalism are cultural conceptions of man and society. Custom, language, history, etc., not race, are what constitute a people. The survival of the white race as such is inconsequential (except insofar as white people are the actual bearers of Western culture): what matters is the survival and advancement of our culture. I, for one, have scarcely any actual Anglo-Saxon blood, but I consider myself an Anglo-Saxon culturally, an Anglo-Saxon by adoption, by tradition, by language, by loyalties.
We object to mass immigration from the Third World -- not because the immigrants are nonwhite, but because they are civilizationally backward and culturally alien. We want to assimilate the immigrants we have already received; racists have no hope for assimilation, and a morbid horror of the "race-mixing" that, from a cultural point of view, is entirely desirable.
The racist Right is also economically collectivist: "Nazi," after all, is short for Nationalsozialist. This is in sharp contrast to conservatives, who are generally in favor of economic freedom (though they do not idolize capitalism as much as the libertarians do), and one of the clearest markers as to whether an individual or group is actually or potentially fascist.
The cold-blooded, ruthlessly practical argument against the racist Right, is that it picks the wrong enemies: Jews, blacks, "race-mixers" -- as if America doesn't have enough real enemies. Obsessed with these bogeymen, the nazis are incapable of doing anything constructive, or even striking at the real enemy: the liberals, most of whom are not Jewish or black or "race-mixers" (while some perfectly good Americans are). They are blind to the really dangerous "race-traitors." It is probably no accident that the ones most prone to violence are too stupid to direct their violence against the right targets.
White racism may be excusable in Europe, where the racially and culturally alien population is of recent origin and still relatively small: anything that could halt and reverse the influx is a good thing. But what we need is a unifying principle, and since America is already a multiracial country, racism is not for us.
It is vitally important for the future of our country that we finally and completely renounce racism. This means primarily that we must renounce and denounce nonwhite racism, since white racism has been and remains the object of official prohibition and vilification. This double standard is one of the most odious examples of liberal hypocrisy, and is the main (if not the only) reason why race-relations are still problematic. In particular, we must abolish the vicious and racist system of "affirmative action."
We cannot live in a society free of racism as long as we are adscripted into a racial caste system that defines our identity and our lot in life according to the real or imaginary victim-status of our ancestors. We cannot live in a society free of racism without intermarrying among our various racial and ethnic groups until no one can say who is what, and no one cares. We should tear up our pedigrees and say: "We're all Americans, and Americans are mutts."
The nation is the only surviving institution capable of inspiring general loyalty and, at least potentially, both cultural creativity and mass political action. The simple fact of common nationality unites people, and gives them depth and rootedness; nationalism is the self-conscious renewal and heightening of pre-existing nationality. If the West is to be saved, it is nationalism that will save it. It is the most powerful force that we, like Antaeus, can return to and draw strength from.
Nationalism has gotten a bad reputation in our cosmopolitan, "enlightened" and "progressive" era. Nationalism is not synonymous with chauvinism, i.e. the belief that "My nation is the best of all nations, and has the right to conquer and rule yours, if we have the power." Chauvinism leads to imperialism, and imperialism is the opposite of nationalism, whose whole point is to establish states that are ethnically homogeneous.
It is true that nationalism is exclusive. My nation is my nation; foreigners are foreigners. But in the real world, with human nature as it is actually constituted, every form of community is exclusive. Only the most shallow sense of identification and loyalty could possibly be extended to the human race as a whole.
The only coherent and stable basis for political organization is the people -- tribe, polis, nation, whatever. In particular, "democracy" as we understand it cannot possibly work unless "the people" are one people. Democracy is the idea that "we" govern ourselves, as a collective whole; but the only true "we," in the political sense, is the organic "we," the ethnos, which cannot be simulated or reproduced mechanically.
Modern democracy is premised on the idea of the "general will," the unanimous will of the whole people. Without a sense of shared identity and loyalty, real unanimity is impossible. Democracy, then, can only be what classical republicans understood it to be: the tyranny of the majority, creating an illusion of unanimity by forcing its will on minorities. And since, under modern conditions, even majorities are impossible to form or maintain for any length of time, democracy can now only be what libertarians (and, under the veil of euphemism, modern liberals as well) understand it to be: shifting coalitions of minorities, each claiming to be "the people" while seeking their own material advantage.
The liberal conception of citizenship is cheap, hollow, and ultimately untenable. If it is possible to become an American in a day, if anyone from anywhere can become an American, then what does it really mean to be an American? This least-common-denominator definition of nationality is spiritually impoverished, culturally sterile, and incapable of inspiring the loyalty that men will fight and die for.
On the other hand, nationality is not and should not be all-embracing. It is the fundamental common ground on which the richness and variety of civil society is built. The family, free enterprise, voluntary associations, local communities and regionalism are all vital, and sovereign within their respective spheres. Fascism, the totalitarian type of nationalism, made the enormous and ultimately catastrophic error of trying to subsume the whole life of the nation within the national state: the result was a factitious, sterile and homogenized anti-culture of propaganda and slavish obedience.
Nationalism as such is a new and distinctively modern thing, a creature of the nineteenth century, though of course nations had existed for a thousand years. Its origins and manifestations are multifarious, but generally speaking, it was an effort to reconstruct Europe's political order in a more rational and progressive way, yet congruent with the particular loyalties and diverse cultures of the European peoples. Despite its abeyance in the middle of the twentieth century, the work of nation-building is still going on: it resurged with the collapse of the USSR and Yugoslavia, and the Catalans, Basques, Quebecois and so on are still struggling to attain a political status commensurate with their status as distinct peoples.
For America, of course, nationalism is not a matter of separatism (except separation from the UN, NAFTA and so on), but of integration. Liberalism is steadily corroding our national identity, our moral powers of self-assertion and self-defense, by fostering the seemingly opposite principles of individualism and interest-group collectivism. Liberalism teaches everyone to regard himself as an isolated, self-centered, "self-actualizing" creature -- except when he can seek political-economic advantages by identifying himself with some aggrieved minority. Nationalism teaches all compatriots to regard themselves as parts of a greater whole, with a sense of connection to each other, to their common heritage, and to their posterity.
Nationalism is at once conservative and creative: it is inspired by the past, but not limited by it. Conservatism, by itself, is merely the ultimately futile attempt to stop change or slow it down; socialism and libertarianism attempt to construct factitious utopias in defiance of history and at the expense of historic communities. Only nationalism preserves the continuity between past, present and future, neither sacrificing the real past and present to an imaginary future, nor sacrificing the future to an idealized past and ever-imperfect present.
© 2000 by Karl Jahn