The Conservative Cause: Ten Events

Report Political Process

The Conservative Cause: Ten Events

June 14, 1987 14 min read Download Report
Vanden Haag
Visiting Fellow

(Archived document, may contain errors)


by Russell Kirk During the past two centuries, conservatives often have gone forth to battle, like the Celts of the Twflight--but seldom to victory. Forty years ago, when I began to write the book now entitled The Conse -Mind. I intended t o call it The nservatives'E=-- not route, but rout. My publisher, in 1953, dissuaded me from that, however; and indeed I might have contributed to the disaster, turning a rout into a flight, had I persisted in my gloomy title. ' or the past two hundred ye a rs, nevertheless, conservative men and measures have -guard actions against the antagonists of order. Edmund Burke, whose Eear --A -1-v . ......nation L. nce gave men of conservative impulse some coherent 0 '12" R %i e understandin f contest with the forc e s of disruption, wrote at the beginning of the dissolution o the old order of things that, ff mankind demands what cannot be, "the law is broken; nature is disobeyed; and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled, from this world of reason, and o rder, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow." Ile contest between conservatives and radicals in the modern world has been a fierce battle between the world of o r der, on the one hand, and the antagonist world, on the other. Beholding the world today, could anyone maintain that ours is an age of sanity, harmony, virtue, order, and h-uitful pentitence? No, even ff conservatives have held their ground here and there, in general the antagonist world has prevailed.

Divine Guidance. As I wrote in 1950, in Queen's Quarte Ul we live in "a world that damns tradition, lauds equality, and welcomes change; a world that has clutched Rousseau, swallowed him down, and demanded pr ophets yet more radical; a world scarred by industrialism, standardized by the common man, consolidated by government; a world harrowed by war, tremblin& between the colossi of East and West, and peering over the brink into a gulf of dissolution.... The g l oomy vaticinations of Burke, which seemed to liberals of Buckle's generation.the follies of a deranged old genius, have come to pass; the gods, of the copybook headings with fire and -slaughter return. Nations dissolving into mere aggregations of individu a ls; property reapportioned by the political power; great European states ground into powder; tranquil Britain transformed into a socialist commonwealth; the ancient beauty of the Orient ravaged and the empire of India gnawing at her own vitals; the coloni a l world vomiting out its Europeans, although already metamorphosed by them; the smg on th eastern confines of Europe of a leveling frenzy fierce enough to make acobins pale; the gassing of riches and nuight to the Western republic Burke aided--but rosperi ty acquire in haste and linked with arrogance. Where is the divine guidance rke discerned in History? Beheld, perhaps, in the punishment of disobedience: "Me

Russell Kirk is a Distinguished Scholar at The Heritage Foundation.

He spoke at The Heritage Foundtion on February 26,1997.

ISSN 0272-1155. Copyright 1987 by The Heritage Foundation. i p Bu

Lord made all things for himself--yea, even the wicked for the day of evil." This horror may have been inevitable; but the last decade of the eighteenth century resounded to Burkes warning, and we still hear its echo, and perhaps can profit. We can salvage: salvaging is a great part of conservatism. Holding and Gaining Ground. You will perceive that I was not sanguine in 1950. Am I sanguine tod 9 The most that c a n be said for the conservative cause, thirty-seven years f later, is this: Ze fabric of civilization still hangs together in some quarters of the world, if precariously. Now and again, over the past two centuries, conservatives have held the line; or even have mounted counterattacks, raids (in Eliot's line) '%Vith shabby equi ment always deteriorating." Today I venture to describe for you, very succinctly, ten episoTes or actions in which the conservative cause retained or gained some ground. In three earl i er lectures, I endeavored to interest you, ladies and gentlemen, in ten conservative principles, ten conservative books, and ten exemplary conservatives. The magical number of ten is more difficult to attain when we try to bring to mind ten events associa t ed with conservatives' gains. It would be easy enough to mention elections won, in this country or that, by parties of a conservative cast; but elections are ephemeral, and the contest between the conservative impulse and the radical impulse is a struggle that transcends little partisan encounters, often about as significant as baseball or football matches.

The Conservative Impulse. So 'in selecting ten events, I am not discussing primarily the battles of Tweedledum and Tweed ledee--of Franklin Roosevelt versus Wendell Willkie, say, or Harold Wilson versus Edward Heath. Instead I am concerned with the conflict between the forces of integration and those of disintegration. By the conservative impulse, I mean the inclination to s upport a venerable moral order, an established social order, a society of voluntary community, and such healthful institutions as private property and representative government. By the radical impulse, I mean the desire to emancipate all people (whether t h ey like it or not) from moral obligations, to pull down state and church, to bring about an egalitarian -collectivism, to discard all the structures of the ast. The radical im X pulse betrays civilization to what Burke called the antagonist worl ; and int o that anti-world most of the people of the earth have fallen during the past two centuries. Here and there, nevertheless, and now and again, the forces of order have withstood successfully, for a time, the forces of disorder--or perhaps have restored orde r after a time of violence and anarchy. Permit me to suggest, quite arbitrarily, ten suc episodes or developments; if you think of ten better ones, I may readily defer to your judgment. I confine my choices to the two centuries that have elapsed since the A merican and the French Revolutions, using the term "conservative" in its modem political sense. It would be possible to ran e through the centuries, picking out in one era or another men or women who we might fabel, by analogy, as conservatives; but that e xercise might rasp upon liberals' sensibilities. If rarely sanguine, I confess to being sanguinary occasionally. Cicero's order that Catiline's confederates be strangled in the Mamertine prison certainly was a striking event with a conservative p ose, muc h approved by me; but it was quite unconstitutional; and besides, think of what ened to poor Senator Barry Goldwater when in 1964 he ventured to commend this emism. in the cause of liberty. .

IMose Remarkable Men. Therefore I confine myself this afternoon to events that occurred within the past six or seven generations of mankind, and chiefly within the pale of

-2- urp happ extr

what we call "Western!' civiHzation. The first of these events came to pass not a great many miles from here; and had it not o ccurred, there would be no District of Columbia in which this gathering of ours might be arranged. I refer to the signing of the Constitution of the United States. On September 18, 17137, some thirty-nine gentlemen politicians subscribed to the new Consti t ution, fresh from the pens of Gouverneur Morris and the Committee on Style, there in the Pennsylvania State House, now called Independence Hall. you contend that the day of the Constitution's ratification, July 2, 1788, is'the more significant event, I wi l l not quarrel with you. Yet I prefer the draxna of the last day on which the Framers, those remarkable men, put their quill pens to parchment. Sir Henry Maine, piy favorite historian of the day, wrote a century ago that the Constitution of the United Stat e s is the most genuinely conservative document in the history of nations. I will not labor the point today, because my reniamii three Heritage Lectures this calendar year, commencing with one in June, will have tonfo with our Constitution as a conservative power and device. What we should be celebrating, this year and next, is the triumph of the conservative mind in America, near the close of the eighteenth century, over the radical impulse in America. After a dozen years of war and tribulation, some fifty- f ive gentlemen from twelve states succeeded in contriving, in considerable part by compromise (which conservatives ought never to despise), a framework of povernment that has survived the gigantic technological, demographic, economic, social, and even mora l alterations of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Conservatives never built more cleverly than that. Today the United States stands, the principal power resisting the triumph of a ghastly collectivism throughout the world. Had there come out of the A merican Revolution what emerged from the French Revolution, all the world today might be one suffocating despotism. But more of that in my June lecture. A Strupoe for Existence. My second event occurs ten years later, in England. Edmund Burke, dying, told his friends to fight on against "the armed doctrine," -which today we call ideolo , political fanaticism. "Never succumb to the enemy," Burke exhorted them, "it is a stru;2eyfor our existence as a nation; and if you must die, die with the sword in your ha n d; there is a S91-ent, livin* principle of energy in the public mind of England which only requires proper direction to enable her to withstand this or any other ferocious foe; persevere until this tyranny be past." That year of 1797 was black for Britain . Yet Burke already had won, although he did not know it. Paine's popular rhetoric did not persuade Englishmen to pull down their inheritance of ordered freedom; while Burke's late writings captured the more livel minds among the nisig on that he had attes t ed at the end of the trial of Warren Ra-stini. Burkes thou t d ver of expression it was that brought about a coalition of Whigs and Tories that be e first Conservative party, now the oldest political party in the world. One man's gifts and oneman's passio n persuaded Britain to fight on, when all allies were lost; and to fight until the strength of the radicals was exhausted. Reproaching the Enthusiasts. For a third event with significance for conservatives, I transport you to the House of Representatives, m i this city of Washington, in May 1824. John-Randolph of Roanoke has the floor, speaking with his accustomed biting wit. He has been fighting internal improvements, intervention in European affairs, and increases in the tariff that spring; and the South, at least, begins to listen to him earnestly. At this moment

-3- generat! gh an ov came

Randolph reproaches the enthusiasts for swift progress through public policy. I offer you a brief specimen of his extemporaneous brilliance, unknown in Congress today : In all beneficial changes in the natural world, and the sentiment is illustrated by one of the most beautiful effusions of imagination and genius that I ever read-in all thos@ changes, which are the work of an all-wise, all-seeing and supermtendmg provi d ence, as in the misensible gradation by which the infant but expands into manhood, and from manhood to senility; or if you will, to cacucity itself, you will find imperceptible changes; you cannot see the object move, but take your eyes from it for a whil e , and like the index of that clock, you can see that it has moved. The old proverb says, God works good, and always by degrees. The devil, on the other hand, is bent on mischief, and always in a hurry. He cannot stay; his object is mischief, which can bes t be effected suddenly, and he must be gone elsewhere. The causes that Randolph defended all were lost, in his lifetime or little more than three decades later. Yet his words have more meaning to us today, p@e aLps, than they had for Randolph's contemporar i es. As T.S. Eliot puts it, 'The co.-.-.-.-. ion of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living." Revulsion Against Envy. We turn for our fourth event to New England. Orestes Brownson, an American thinker of most remarkable talents, who still is ignored in American universities but who has fascinated both Mr. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and myself, in 1840 was the original American Marxist. But by 1848, it was otherwise with him; and ?nly a few months after publication of the Communist Manif e sto, Brownson refuted Marx in an essay entitled "Socialism and the Church." The understanding of the human condition put forward by Brownson in that essay has confined Marxism in America to dilettantes in universities and a handful of friends of the Sovie t Union scattered throughout the land. I give you one passage from "Socialism and the Church": Veiling itself under Christian forms, attempting to distinguish between Christianity and the Church, claiming for itself the authority and immense popularity of t he Gospel, denouncing Christianity in the name of Christianity, discarding the Bible in the name of the Bible, and defying God in the name of God, Socialigm conceals from the undiscriminating multitude its true character, and, appealing to our strongpst n a tural inclinations and passions, it asserts itself with terrific power, and rolls on its career of devastation and death with a force that human beings, in themselves, are impotent to resist. Men are assimilated to it by all the power of their own nature, and by all their reverence for religion. Their very faith and charity are perverted, and their noblest sympathies and their sublimest hopes are made subservient to their basest passions and their most grovelling propensities. Here is the secret of the str ength of Socialism, and here is the principle source of its danger.


You will recognize in these sentences, written in 1848, the "liberation theology" of our own time. Brownson's writings about the middle of the nineteenth century were events in the sense that they expressed the American revulsion against socialist envy. The Worldng Classes Are Conservative. For our fifth event, I point to the victory of Ben amin Disraeli over the Liberals in Victorian Britain. "The old Jew gentlemen sitting on e to p of chaos," as Augustus Hare memorably describes that astute champion of tradition and custom and the chartered rights of Englishmen, of course did not succeed in turnino back forever the leveling and disit' .egrating forces at work in the world; but he d i d resuscitate an enfeebled resistance to those forces--a resistance that still works within the Togryparty. I refer not to the Disraeli of the Reform Bill of 1867, but to the young Disraeli I of 'I and the old Disraeli of 1874. Speaking at the Guildhall i n that year, he declared that there is more to conservative sentiments than the possession of wealth. "We have been told that a working man cannot be conservative, because he has nothing to conserve--he has neither land nor capital; as if there were not ot h er things in the world as precious as land and capitah" he said then. The working n has liberty, justice, security of erson and .Y 0 y 0 home,. el ual administration of laws, unfettere7d %dustry, Disraeli went on. 'Sure these 4 ELre ffriv2e es worthy of b e ing preserved: ... And 1 g if that be the case, is it wonde that the wor ng classes are Conservative?" That argument told in 1872, and it needs to be made again today. As socialism and nationalism begin to pull the world apart in the last quarter of the n i neteenth century and the first guarter of the twentieth, the tide of events runs against the conservative cause. So we must leap down to the struggles of half a century ago, in order to discern conservative resistance to the troops of the antagonist world . Defeating the Reds in Spain. For our sixth event, or rather group of events, then, I look to the defeat or overthrow of communist parties and forces in eastern and central Europe, in the years immediately following the First World War: the rejection of M a rxism by the Finns, Poles, Hungarians, Germans, and other nations. The time would come when most of these peoples would be abandoned to Soviet ambition, after all; but for the time being a kind of frontier was held against Mordor--that is, Moscow. A later signal event of this sort was the defeat of the Reds in Spain, completed in 1939. Our seventh event is the defeat of a different ideology: the Allies' crushing of the Nazis, in 1945: the Western Allies, I mean. It is pleasant to be able to record one majo r military victory that helped to sustain order, justice, and freedom. The fortitude of Britain in general, and ofWinston Churchill in particular, made possible this successful resistance to the enemies of a tolerable civil social order. Looking for Spirit u al Growth. For the eighth event I choose the change of residence of a man of letters: Alexander Solzhenitsyn, exiled from Russia. Solzhenitsyn's denunciation of the tyranny of ideology did more to dispel illusions--although not from everybody's vision--th a n did any other writing of our time. In 1974 Solzhenitzyn made his way to the West; in 1983, through his Templeton Address, he expressed with high feeling the essence of the conservative impulse: Our life consists not in the pursuit of material success bu t in the quest of worthy spiritual growth. Our entire earthly existence is but a transition stage in the movement toward something higher, and we must not stumble or fall, nor


must we Un&er tmru dess one rung of the ladder.... The laws of physicss a n p s, 10 will never reveal the indisputable manner in wMfich eator constantly, day in and day out, articipates in the life of each of us, unfailingly granting us the energy of existence; when this assistance leaves us, we die. In the life of our entire p l anet, the Divine Spirit moves with no less force: this we must grasp in our dark and terrible hour. The Pope's Hi@roic Character. The ninth event of stron& significance for the conserving of the world of order is the election of the Polish ecclesiastic no w styled John Paul 11 to the Papacy. A Church swiftly sliding toward a trivial neoterism, or worse, has been arrested in its descent; once more the Church begins to speak against the enemies or order, both order Of SPM**t and social order; and the heroic c h aracter of the Pope, who as known the suffering of obscure men under grim dominations and powers, gives his words authority in quarters never Catholic. Rome is the power that withholds, Cardinal Newman wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century; and wh e n Rome falls, the Antichrist will come, in the name of liberation. Fifteen years ago, that hour seemed near at hand; but John Paul H, with few to help him, has faced down the vanguard of the antagonist world. For our tenth event, I have settled upon the e l ection of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980. Had a few more Republicans apprehended the drifit of public opinion in the United States, and understood how the popular rhetoric of Mr. Reagan spoke to American minds, Mr. Reagan @niight have been electe d years earlier--even so early as 1964, conceivably--and much mischief avoided thereby. Ronald Reagan will be remembered as the President who restored hope to the American people-even great expectations. Old iureties that the ritualistic liberal had mocked were unshaken in Ronald Reagan's mind; and President Reagan's reaffirmation of those ancient convictions began to arouse the nation from the discouragement of twenty years or more. Anning Against a Sea of Trouble. We have yet to elect a Congress of which t he majority will be intelligently conservative-much though the times cry out for a genuinely conservative renewal, reaffirmation, and restoration of some measure of order and justice and freedom. Indeed, we have yet to obtain some consensus among people c o nservatively inclined as to what we meant to conserve. But we have taken arms against a sea of troubles, friends; and by opposing we may end them. The beginning of the twenty-first century@--for a time, it seemed as if humanity would not get so far in tim e --may mark the be i i f a recovery of right reason and moral imagination. Our Time of Troubles, Arnold e tells us, commenced with the catastrophic events of the year 1914. Some histori now suggest that our civilization has just be&un to recover from the e r rors and appetites that brought society so close to total surrender to the antagonist world-even our society, so smug about its material a 'uisitions. If indeed some conservative standards are to be erected soon, there will occur I@ge events worth celebra t ing; and it is conceivable, ladies and gentlemen, that some of you present here this day may look back upon the twentieth century as a Bad Old Time when things were in the saddle and rode mankind; a time when nearly all the big events were disastrous. Let us devoutly hope so. We never will succeed in march m*g t Zion-that gross delusion, indeed, Res behind many of the ruinous events of the past two centuries--but we may aspire to conserve much that deserves saving. Begin to make events, friends, rather tha n to be overwhelmed by them. i d the

g mrun o 167b@ ans




Vanden Haag

Visiting Fellow