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Our Conservatism and Theirs

In common with any other ideological camp, conservatives quarrel among themselves, but it is only recently that their quarrels have begun attracting the attention of outsiders. Thus the (more or less) liberal New Republic not long ago devoted its cover and a slew of articles to the debates that have erupted in the past few months among a number of different conservative groups over the true meaning of conservatism. What the New Republic wished to convey was the impression that a formerly unified or monolithic movement was breaking apart—or, as the editors put it, “Having vanquished the liberals, right-wingers are starting to turn on each other.”

In fact, however, factionalism has characterized the intellectual Right in America since its re-constitution in the wake of World War II. Up to the time when George Nash wrote The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America (1976), there were at least two major philosophical groupings, which he called traditionalists and libertarians.1 Obviously, there were also divisions among the traditionalists, since it was never a matter of consensus just which tradition was to be foundational for American conservatism. Since the early 1970’s the picture has become even more complicated. Now there are the neoconservatives, most of them refugees from a liberalism gone berserk in those years, as well as the New Right in both its religious (mostly evangelical Protestant) and secular versions.

Of all the conservative intellectual groupings, the New Right is probably the only one with massive roots in a popular movement, that “bourgeois insurgency” (the apt phrase is Richard John Neuhaus’s) which has twice swept Ronald Reagan into the White House. Needless to say, this has made a big difference for all brands of intellectual conservatism. Nash, in a recent article in Policy Review, may be a bit premature when he argues that the Reagan administration has brought about “the emergence of a conservative ruling class.” But it is certainly true that conservative intellectuals have felt somewhat less isolated since 1980.

In trying to understand the differences among these groups, it is useful to bear in mind that most conservatives view history as a decline from a past that was better than the present in at least some significant respects. In other words, at some point in the course of history, something went wrong and the present situation is the result of this catastrophe. It is in where they locate the relevant catastrophe that contemporary American conservatisms define and distinguish themselves.

Thus, among the traditionalists, one subspecies, the Roman Catholic conservatives, have typically posited the Middle Ages as that high point from which the descent took place into the current mess. The Middle Ages covers quite a stretch of time, and different Catholic conservatives may prefer this or that portion of it over others, while dissociating themselves from some of the less inspiring characteristics of the putative golden age of Christian civilization (such as the massacres of heretics). Still, an ideal type of medieval society, if not all of it in its empirical plenitude, serves as a standard against which the depressing realities of the modern West can be measured. For English-speaking Roman Catholics, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc have (fairly or not) represented this vision. Then there is the Anglo-Catholic subdivision of the genre, well represented by T.S. Eliot, where the descent into depravity is dated from the 17th rather than the 13th century. In America there is also a homegrown version of this perspective in the Southern Agrarians, with the Civil War perceived as the watershed between an essentially wholesome antebellum society (perhaps even slavery has gotten an undeservedly bad press?) and the morass of modern pathologies. And then, still within the traditionalist encampment, are the followers of Leo Strauss. For the Straussians things have been going downhill ever since the fall of the Greek polis (could it be that Straussian-ism has been particularly attractive to Jewish scholars because it allows them to locate the golden age before the advent of the much-vaunted Christian civilization?).

For libertarians, with their philosophically enthusiastic embrace of capitalism, the golden age would presumably be that of the late-19th-century robber barons. The New Right, especially in its evangelical embodiment, also looks back to the 19th century, but here the ideal image is that of small-town America. As to the neoconservatives, a hermeneutic of their writings very quickly locates the catastrophe: it was the late 1960’s. No wonder, then, that traditionalist conservatives perceive this group as Johnny-come-latelies: the neoconservatives, it appears, are late by anything from one to six centuries at the very least.

From the point of view of the traditionalists, the New Right and the libertarians are also belated, but that is the least of their sins. The traditionalists find the New Right vision, with its Norman Rockwell icons, vaguely simpatico but unspeakably vulgar. And for the libertarians, the traditionalists, who are not generally pro-capitalist, have hardly any use at all (and vice versa).

Capitalism is also one of the issues that divides the neoconservatives from the libertarians. The neoconservative attitude has been perfectly caught in the title of one of Irving Kristol’s books, Two Cheers for Capitalism. By contrast, it is fair to assume that any good libertarian disciple of F.A. Hayek or Milton Friedman would find it within himself to utter three cheers (such followers of Ayn Rand as are still around give at least six).

Even more serious than these disagreements over capitalism is the split between the libertarians and the other major conservative groupings over the question of state power. The libertarians’ radical hostility to state power as such has led them to advocate measures like the legalization of drugs and deep cuts in defense spending (the Pentagon being an agency of state power) and has thus brought them into sharp conflict with both the traditionalists and the neoconservatives.



It is not, however, the libertarians but rather the neoconservatives who have lately been coming under fire from the traditionalists. For example, at a meeting of conservative intellectuals last April, a number of traditionalist speakers argued that the neoconservatives were not really conservatives at all. At heart, they were still children of liberalism and all its metaphysical illusions. They were modern pragmatists, without a unifying philosophical point of view and without the allegiance to the values of Christian civilization that alone could serve as a viable basis for conservatism.

The element of truth in this unpleasant and sweeping charge is that despite this or that philosophical reservation, most neoconservatives would be quite at home in 20th-century America if it were not for the political and cultural legacies of the 1960’s. By contrast, most traditionalist conservatives, while agreeing that the late 1960’s inaugurated a particularly nefarious phase in the unfolding of modern pathology, are not so at home.

Perhaps nothing illuminates the difference better than the fact that so many influential neoconservatives live in New York City, while Russell Kirk, the doyen of traditionalist conservatives, has chosen to live in Mecosta, Michigan. Indeed, this difference is more revealing than the much more frequently cited fact that Jews are more numerous in the neoconservative camp than they are among the traditionalists (although it should also be said that many more non-Jews identify with neoconservatism than is often supposed).

For the issue here, quite simply, is the issue of modernity—but not modernity as an assemblage of techniques. After all, most traditionalist conservatives have made their peace with the telephone, the computer, and bypass surgery. The issue rather is in the area of modern consciousness, and specifically the experience of relativity2—the awareness that all world views and value systems are contingent upon specific historical and social circumstances. Another crucial element of modern consciousness is a generally pragmatic attitude, a vision of the world as “makable” and, consequently, a “tinkering” approach to the handling of most if not all problems. Both the experience of relativity and the pragmatic attitude have been theoretically elaborated, more than anywhere else, in the social sciences. It is, therefore, “no accident” that so many neoconservatives have come out of the social sciences or, if not, are sympathetic to the social-scientific enterprise, while traditionalist conservatives are generally hostile to all the social sciences and especially to sociology (which they perceive, correctly, as the modern discipline par excellence).

The experience of relativity was classically formulated by Pascal in his statement that what is truth on one side of the Pyrenees is error on the other. It cannot be stated emphatically enough that this does not imply that there is no such thing as truth; it hardly needs saying that Pascal, of all people, intended no such implication. The experience of relativity, however, makes it difficult to hold beliefs in the taken-for-granted, untroubled way that has always been characteristic of tradition. The individual who has passed through the experience may hold very firm beliefs, but he will be conscious of the fact that he has chosen them. The traditionalist holds his beliefs as givens. Modernization, at its very core, is a movement of the mind from destiny to choice.

To be modern, however critically, means to assent to this movement. We would argue, in fidelity to our discipline of sociology, that the explanation for this shift must be sought in the institutional realities of modern society rather than in some Platonic realm of ideas operating independently of the social context. Be that as it may, however, the modern historical and social sciences, as well as modern philosophy, psychology, and (last but not least) literature, have endlessly elaborated this root experience on the level of theoretical reflection. To the traditionalist, all this theorizing is part and parcel of the intellectual degeneration of modernity, the alleged diagnosis that is in fact the disease.

The pragmatic attitude may be less fundamental to modernity than the experience of relativity. It is presumably rooted in the scientific and technological practices epitomized in the mind set of the engineer (Thorstein Veblen’s “instinct of workmanship”), but it could, theoretically, coexist with a traditional world view. Empirically, especially as conjoined with the experience of relativity in modern consciousness, this “tinkering” attitude involves a readiness to experiment, to compromise, to look for “what works” rather than for what is eternally true. Again, the social sciences have taken the lead in the theoretical elaboration of this attitude. Again, traditionalists see it as proof of the intellectual and moral degeneracy of the modern age.

Some traditionalists call this configuration of cognitive and normative habits “utilitarianism,” but that is a misnomer. The philosophical school of that name was a passing and not very interesting episode in modern thought. Yet the term does touch on something real. The modern consciousness of relativity and pragmatic “makability” does indeed mean that values are held in a less than absolutist manner. It is precisely this that impresses the traditionalist as a foreign thing, and as morally repugnant to boot. Against it, he will posit the perennial verities of his cherished tradition. We would argue that he is under an illusion, for he has in fact chosen his tradition and nothing he does following this act of choice can restore him to the untroubled certitude that characterizes people living in a pre-modern traditional world. But, illusion or not, this perception of the modern world will necessarily lead to a negative judgment on all those who have accepted the “quest for certainty” as open-ended.



As we ourselves reflect upon our own personal relationship to the panorama of American conservatisms, we are conscious, if only as sociologists, of our biographical peculiarities. Both of us left Central Europe as young adults, and our enthusiastic embrace of America was certainly shaped by our childhood experiences of totalitarianism and war. It was to New York City that we first came, and although circumstances have led us to live elsewhere, we retain a fierce attachment to that locality and the spirit it represents. We are Christians. We are social scientists. Yet for all these peculiarities, our biographies are not so unusual that our present position must remain inaccessible to anyone with a different background. What, then, do we mean when we describe ourselves as “conservatives” and when, given the empirically available groupings, we locate ourselves (with a reservation here and there) in the neoconservative camp?

We begin with a general view of history and of the human condition that can be characterized as generically conservative. It is rooted in a rejection of the idea of progress in history and a belief in certain unalterable realities of human nature. Such a view makes one inevitably skeptical of all projects of radical change, of all forms of utopian-ism, especially those that intend this or that realization of a “new man” (or, for that matter, a “new humanity” in a gender-free future).

To reject the idea of progress is not to see history as the night in which all cats are morally gray. There is no progress, but there are progresses. Thus modernity is far from the pinnacle of human evolution. It may even be a retrogression in certain areas (for example, in the loss of the sense of transcendence among many modern people). But modernity has brought progresses, as in the movement from despotism to democracy; or in the replacement of the “biological ancien régime” (Fernand Braudel), under which most children died, by the contemporary situation in which most children live to be adults; or in the modern conviction that every individual has rights even against his own community.

Such a view of history makes it difficult to choose a particular catastrophe from which all current evils can be derived. In one sense, all of history is a catastrophe, a long story of cruelty and folly, occasionally interrupted by compassion and sanity. Put more positively, in Leopold von Ranke’s wonderful phrase, “every age is immediate to God”—that is, every age has its unique cognitive and moral challenges, disasters and discoveries. To live responsibly is to recognize and meet the challenges of one’s own age. This view does not preclude sympathy with, even nostalgia for, the past. But it does preclude elevating the past (or, more accurately, any specific past) to the status of absolute standard, and it can incorporate quite comfortably the key modern experience of relativity.

In principle, such a generic conservatism could be reconciled with a great variety of positions this side of utopianism. There is also, however, a more strictly political level to the conservatism we would espouse. Here the word “conservative” applies literally. Given the realities of the contemporary world, we are in favor of maintaining and defending the major existing institutions of American society. These institutions are, roughly, contained in the phrase “democratic capitalism.” Needless to say, this political conservatism can coexist with criticism, even sharp criticism, of this or that feature of the status quo. However, we locate ourselves politically by affirming the moral superiority of democracy and capitalism over all existing alternatives, in America or elsewhere, and we draw a long list of consequences from this affirmation both for domestic and foreign policy. Some of these consequences separate us from the prevailing liberal consensus, others do not, at least not necessarily. But our political conservatism, as defined, sharply separates us from the positions of the Left (old, new, or in-between).

The leftward lurch of American intellectuals in the late 1960’s and its institutionalization in academia since then has been traumatic for us as university teachers of a conservative bent. In this limited sense, then, we share the catastrophic experience at the basis of neoconservatism—although we do not share the ideological background of many “New York intellectuals.” Even in our active opposition to the Vietnam war we were never on the Left (though we did work with the Left in the anti-war movement), and we were “liberals” only in the sense that prior to the late 1960’s we felt quite comfortable in the broad political ambience of the Democratic party (one of us, perhaps in a triumph of hope over experience, is still a registered Democrat, the other has been on the Republican rolls since 1968).

In other words, we have defined ourselves politically in the American situation in response to the sudden descent of the elite culture and political liberalism into an orgy of utopian lunacies. We have been kept in this political self-definition by the fact that, while the orgy has abated, the lunacies have become organized into a cultural and political establishment. Not surprisingly, we can communicate most readily with neoconservatives. We cannot participate in the alleged certitudes of the other conservative groupings. We are, if you will, conservatives not by faith but by skepticism.



Having thus located ourselves, we should spell out in somewhat greater detail what this location implies in terms of three issues that divide Right-of-Center people today—the issues of morality, of religion, and of political alliances.

Traditionalists of all varieties keep on saying that there are absolute values. We do not really care to dispute this. Our problem is that we are not quite sure what these values are. We are not able, at least not honestly, to accept any particular moral tradition in toto as being the necessary and unquestionable manifestation of divine will, natural law, or reason. Rather, we see history as the successive disclosure, occultation, and rediscovery of moral insights, and while we are very certain of some of these insights (such as the infinite value of every individual human being and, therefore, the moral repugnancy of acts or institutions that deny this value), we are not in a position to affirm without qualifications any of the specific traditions in which these insights have come down to us. This is not “utilitarianism.” But neither is it the apodictic certitude that traditionalists like to exhibit. Having drunk from the well of relativity, we cannot pretend not to have done so.

Such a moral stance tends to be negative rather than positive; it tends toward proscription rather than prescription; it allows strong, even passionate moral judgments, but it will not accord ultimate legitimacy to any empirical (ipso facto historical and “socially constructed”) institution. On the practical level, it is a moral stance that is more concerned with consequences than with principles.

Max Weber, in his classic essay, “Politics as a Vocation,” distinguishes between two kinds of ethics, an “ethic of absolute ends” (Gesinnungsethik) and an “ethic of responsibility” (Verantwortungsethik). The almost instinctive procedure of the first type of ethics is to compare any given situation with the unchanging and unerring table of values, and then to act accordingly no matter what the consequences (“fiat iustitia, pereat mundus”). Traditionalists with intelligence and a sense of compassion will, of course, repress this instinct from time to time, but it keeps asserting itself. By contrast, an “ethic of responsibility” will always be calculating, weighing intended and imaginably unintended consequences, willing to compromise with the lesser evil, even daring to be morally wrong. Mark Twain (to the best of our knowledge not a disciple of Weber) expressed this stance well: “When in doubt, do the right thing.”

Take two very important issues on which most conservatives find themselves in general agreement—the moral repugnancy of Communist regimes and the morally dubious quality of the Western welfare state. An “ethic of absolute ends” will undeviatingly reject the first and will be bent on totally dismantling the second. An “ethic of responsibility” will give moral warrants to much more cautious approaches.

Thus, while we have no illusions about the moral character of the Communist regime in China, as adherents of an “ethic of responsibility” we have favored rapprochement between the United States and China because of its consequences for the much more threatening relationship with the Soviet Union. Thus, too, we feel a deep skepticism about the fruits of what may loosely be called the “Swedish model” of the welfare state—for example, the harm it does to the value of individual responsibility—but, conscious of the human and political costs of a radical assault on it, we are much more in favor of a gradual, experimental, “tinkering” approach to this exceedingly complicated set of institutions.

Needless to say, this sort of moral stance cuts against the absolutism of the Left as well as of the Right. Against both it affirms that politics is not intended to save our souls but to accomplish specific, necessarily limited, purposes in the real world in which men live.



The language we have just used leads us into the realm of religion. In our judgment, the traditionalists are correct to the extent that they perceive religion as a root issue in the political positions one takes. They are terribly wrong in seeing this issue as one between religion and irreligion. Of course there are atheists and agnostics, and both atheism and agnosticism have been politically relevant phenomena in the modern world. But the question in America today (by all the evidence the most religious of advanced industrial societies) is rather what kind of religion one brings to politics.

Our kind is Lutheran, and it is Lutheran in a liberal vein (the term “liberal” here referring not to politics but to theology—that is, to that strand of modern Protestant thought which, ever since Friedrich Schleiermacher, has applied historical reason to the Christian tradition). Both facets of this religious profile are highly relevant to the point under contention here.

Of all the major Christian traditions, Lutheranism has probably been the most consistently anti-utopian. This aversion to perfectionist projects in the world stems from two core elements of the Lutheran version of Christianity—its conviction that men are saved by faith and not by works, and its doctrine of the two kingdoms. The innermost center of Luther’s rebellion against Rome was his understanding of salvation as coming from God’s grace alone, which grace man can only accept in faith, and as not coming from man’s own efforts to attain purity. Out of this center flowed the entire stream of Lutheran ethics—realistic, non-radical, aware that the moral life in this world is always ambiguous, and that, therefore, at the end of the day man can only try to do his duty and trust in God’s forgiveness.

Such an ethical orientation precludes adherence to an ironclad table of values. Indeed, it leads precisely to an “ethic of responsibility” as advocated by Weber (who was an agnostic but also what may be called a “cultural Lutheran”). And the doctrine of the two kingdoms—the kingdom of grace and the kingdom of law—emphasizes that this world, including the entire political sphere, is not the arena in which men are called upon to realize the final good. In the fullness of time God will establish His reign on earth; in the meantime, men are only called upon to safeguard certain basic conditions of justice, and that justice will always be partial and flawed.

Some of these ideas, of course, are quite alien to people from other religious traditions. Roughly the last thing in the world we are interested in is to propagate Lutheranism. Rather, we would think that other Christian traditions (Catholic, Anglican, and Calvinist, as well as Eastern Orthodox) also contain central elements which militate against moral rigidity and political perfectionism (though, of course, we are aware of the millenarian strand in Christian ethics). As to Judaism, it has very strong safeguards both against absolutism and utopianism in politics. After all, the principal affirmation that has separated Jews from Christianity is their insistence that the messiah has not yet come, and as long as Jews have been close to their own religious tradition this has, with some few exceptions (such as the Sabbatean movement), led them to a very sober view of the possibilities of politics.

To return to the current controversy, we would certainly reject, with some vehemence, the suggestion that our own political position is divorced from religion. On the contrary, we understand our political activities as being mandated by the Christian’s responsibility in the world. To be a citizen is in our view to exercise a religious vocation. This vocation is violated by an ethic and by a political approach which ignore the consequences of one’s actions. The foremost social commandment is to love one’s neighbor, which we understand as meaning all others within the range of our actions. An “ethic of responsibility” is concerned, precisely, with the well-being of one’s neighbors, as against one’s own spiritual or moral purity. The modern experience of relativity and the modern attitude of pragmatism, while they obviously are often associated with people who have no religious commitment, in our case tally perfectly with our religious understanding of the nature of this world and of the moral obligations of a Christian. Conversely, we see the moral absolutism proclaimed by most traditionalist conservatives not only as politically ineffectual but, much more fundamentally, as being based on a far-reaching theological error—the one that Luther, pejoratively, called “works righteousness.”



Finally, there is the issue of political alliances. Here we would make a distinction between foreign and domestic policies. We believe that the most important political and moral challenge of our time is the struggle for the survival of freedom. In the international context this struggle has its focus in the resistance to the spread of Soviet-style totalitarianism. We have learned through bitter experience (especially through our involvement in the anti-war movement of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s) that one must never enter into alliances with those who defend totalitarianism in the name of any cause or who deny the realities of totalitarianism.

Put simply, in the international struggle for freedom and for minimal decency in societal arrangements, the sharp line is between democrats and anti-democrats. We think that, given the seriousness of the conflict, one should be prepared to enter into alliances with anyone on the democratic side of the divide. This includes, most emphatically, that broad, loose camp of social democrats—people with whom we might disagree on many matters but who understand that the greatest threat of all is totalitarianism. Conversely, this means refusing alliances with all those on the other side and those who fudge the issue. Regrettably, most on the Left, along with a depressing number of people calling themselves liberals nowadays, fall into this category.

Domestically we would throw a wider net. Within the game of American politics (the same is true of other democracies), the major domestic issue dividing Right-of-Center and Left-of-Center groupings is the nature and scope of the modern welfare state, and the policies to be adopted with regard to the latter. We cannot see this (pace the libertarians) as an issue with the same moral gravamen as the opposition to totalitarianism. Here, it seems to us, all sorts of alliances are possible within the spectrum of American politics. Consequently, we are extremely uncomfortable when Right-of-Center groups raise absolutist battle cries on domestic issues that more properly belong in the area of foreign policy.

Once more, in our view both of the international scene and of domestic policies, we find ourselves at home with neoconservatives and ill-at-ease among other sorts of conservatives. It seems to us that conservatives of all description face an important question in these waning years of the Reagan administration. They can revert to their old status as ideological sects—a huddling-together of people who agree on everything, congratulating themselves on their purity of principle, and having little or no political efficacy. Or they can build on the victories of recent years to institutionalize the still very fragile Reagan coalition into a durable force in American politics. It is not very difficult to list the principal foreign and domestic policies on which there is widespread agreement within this coalition. Nor is it impossible to mute or to compromise on many of the policies on which there is disagreement. Such flexibility, of course, is of the essence of politics in a democracy.

We would say, then, that American conservatives in 1986 cannot afford sectarianism and that conservative intellectuals should be able to understand this. We would go one step further and also say that, given the challenges of our time, conservative sectarianism is morally irresponsible.




1 Since the third of Nash's groups, the anti-Communists, mainly overlapped philosophically with the other two, we are leaving them out of consideration here.

2 The degree to which the habitual use of telephones and computers necessarily carries with it the entire “package” of modern consciousness is a question we discuss in detail in our book The Homeless Mind (1973).

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