The following is adapted from the collection of essays What Is Conservatism? edited by Frank S. Meyer.
The intellectual bankruptcy of the collectivist Liberalism which has dominated American thought for the past half century becomes every day more obvious.
The imagination, the verve, the spiritual passion that once characterized it in its days of movement towards power have long since been replaced by a tired repetition of slogans empty of content and sustained only by the weight and inertia of bureaucratic power.
Power, Liberalism still has beyond doubt; but power has only the next to the last word in the affairs of men—not the last word. Power is wielded by men, controlled by men, divided by men, limited by men, as they are guided and inspired by their intellectual and spiritual understanding. There may be a gap of years, of decades, between the onset of the impotence of a false world-view, and the decay and defeat of the power structure which has arisen upon the foundations of that worldview.
But its defeat is, given time, the necessary result of the re-emergence of truth in the consciousness of those who are concerned with matters of the intellect, with matters of the spirit, of those who—though they may have little control over material power at the moment—determine the foundations of the future.
It is to this discussion that I want to address myself, with the hope of helping to clarify some of the issues which divide counsels and hinder the growth of intellectual understanding among the opponents of collectivism.
Semantic difficulties are added to substantive difficulties in any such discussion, and I ask the indulgence of my readers in accepting the word “conservative” as an overall term to include the two streams of thought that in practice unite to oppose the reigning ideology of collectivist Liberalism. I believe that those two streams of thought, although they are sometimes presented as mutually incompatible, can in reality be united within a single broad conservative political theory, since they have their roots in a common tradition and are arrayed against a common enemy. Their opposition, which takes many forms, is essentially a division between those who abstract from the corpus of Western belief its stress upon freedom and upon the innate importance of the individual person (what we may call the “libertarian” position) and those who, drawing upon the same source, stress value and virtue and order (what we may call the “traditionalist” position).
But the source from which both draw, the continuing consciousness of Western civilization, has been specifically distinguished by its ability to hold these apparently opposed ends in balance and tension, and in fact the two positions which confront each other today in American conservative discourse both implicitly accept, to a large degree, the ends of the other. Without the implicit acceptance of an absolute ground of value, the pre-eminence of the person as criterion of political and social thought and action has no philosophical foundation, and freedom would be only a meaningless excitation and could never become the serious goal of a serious politics.
On the other hand, the belief in virtue as the end of men’s being implicitly recognizes the necessity of freedom to choose that end; otherwise, virtue could be no more than a conditioned tropism. And the raising of order to the rank of an end overshadowing and subordinating the individual person would make of order not what the traditionalist conservative means by it, but the rule of totalitarian authority, inhuman and subhuman.
On neither side is there a purposeful, philosophically founded rejection of the ends the other side proclaims. Rather, each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in. The place of its goals in the total tradition of the West is lost sight of, and the complementary interdependence of freedom and virtue, of the individual person and political order, is forgotten.
Nevertheless, although these contrary emphases in conservative thought can and do pull away from each other when the proponents of either forsake one side of their common heritage of belief in virtue as man’s proper end and his freedom under God as the condition of the achievement of that end, their opposition is not irreconcilable, precisely because they do in fact jointly possess that very heritage.
Extremists on one side may be undisturbed by the danger of the recrudescence of authoritarian status society if only it would enforce the doctrines in which they believe.
Extremists on the other side may care little what becomes of ultimate values if only political and economic individualism prevails.
But both extremes are self-defeating: truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.
Such extremes, however, are not the necessary outcome of a dialectic between doctrines which emphasize opposite sides of the same truth. Indeed, a dialectic between different emphases based upon the same fundamental understanding is the mode by which finite men have achieved much of the wisdom contained in tradition. Such a dialectic is in the highest degree necessary today between the libertarians and the traditionalists among conservatives. It cannot fail to achieve results of the greatest significance, if only the protagonists, in pressing that aspect of the truth which each regards as decisive, keep constantly in their consciousness other and complementary aspects of the same truth.
The tendency to establish false antitheses obstructing fruitful confrontation arises in part from an inherent dilemma of conservatism in a revolutionary era, such as ours.
There is a real contradiction between the deep piety of the conservative spirit towards tradition, prescription, the preservation of the fiber of society (what has been called “natural conservatism”) and the more reasoned, consciously principled, militant conservatism which becomes necessary when the fibers of society have been rudely torn apart, when deleterious revolutionary principles ride high, and restoration, not preservation, is the order of the day. For what the conservative is committed to conserve is not simply whatever happen to be the established conditions of a few years or a few decades, but the consensus of his civilization, of his country, as that consensus over the centuries has reflected truth derived from the very constitution of being.
It is here that the dilemma of conservatism affects our present doctrinal discussion. The need in our circumstances for the most vigorous use of reason to combat the collectivist, scientistic, amoral wave of the present tends to induce in the libertarian an apotheosis of reason and the neglect of tradition and prescription (which he identifies with the prevailing prescriptions of the present). The traditionalist, suspecting in this libertarian tendency the same fever to impose upon men an abstract speculative ideology that has characterized the revolution of our time—as well as the French Revolution and its spiritual forebears—tends to recoil and in his turn to press a one-sided position. Too often he confounds reason and principle with “demon ideology.” Rather than justly insisting upon the limits of reason—the finite bounds of the purview of any one man or any one generation, and the responsibility to employ reason in the context of continuing tradition—he seems sometimes to turn his back on reason altogether and to place the claims of custom and prescription in irreconcilable opposition to it.
Both attitudes obscure the truth; both vitiate the value of the dialectic. The history of the West has been a history of reason operating within tradition. The balance has been tenuous, the tension at times has tightened till it was spiritually almost unbearable; but out of this balance and tension the glory of the West has been created. To claim exclusive sovereignty for either component, reason or tradition, is to smirch that glory and cripple the potentialities of conservatism in its struggle against the Liberal collectivist Leviathan.
Abstract reason, functioning in a vacuum of tradition, can indeed give birth to an arid and distorting ideology. But, in a revolutionary age, the qualities of natural conservatism by themselves can lead only to the enthronement of the prevailing power of the revolution.
Natural conservatism is a legitimate human characteristic, and in settled times it is conducive to good. It represents the universal human tendency to hold by the accustomed, to maintain existing modes of life. In settled times it can exist in healthy tension with the other equally natural human characteristic, the dynamic impulse to break beyond accepted limits in the deepening of truth and the heightening of value. But this is only possible before the fibers of society have been loosened, before the “cake of custom” has been broken. Then these two human tendencies can be held in just proportion, since men of all conditions believe, each at the level of his understanding, in the same transcendent Ground of truth and value.
But when, through whatever cause, this unity in tension is riven, when the dynamic takes off into thin air, breaking its tension with the perpetual rhythms of life—in short, when a revolutionary force shatters the unity and balance of civilization—then conservatism must be of another sort if it is to fulfill its responsibility. It is not and cannot be limited to that uncritical acceptance, that uncomplicated reverence, which is the essence of natural conservatism.
The world of idea and symbol and image has been turned topsy-turvy; the life stream of civilization has been cut off and dispersed.
This is our situation. What is required of us is a conscious conservatism, a clearly principled restatement in new circumstances of philosophical and political truth. This conscious conservatism cannot be a simple piety, although in a deep sense it must have piety towards the constitution of being.
Nevertheless in its consciousness it necessarily reflects a reaction to the rude break the revolution has made in the continuity of human wisdom. It is called forth by a sense of the loss which that cutting off has created. It cannot now be identical with the natural conservatism towards which it yearns. The world in which it exists is the revolutionary world. To accept that, to conserve that, would be to accept and conserve the very denial of man’s long-developed understanding, the very destruction of achieved truth, which are the essence of the revolution.
Frank S. Meyer (1909–1972) was a longtime editor at National Review and the author of In Defense of Freedom, among other books. He was the leading proponent of “fusionism,” which emphasized the link between the principles of freedom and moral order.