We are all children of the Revolution. Wherever we look, in the office or at church, whatever professions we examine or traditions we cherish, we are hard pressed to discover a single significant aspect of human experience that has not been transformed by a perpetual revolution that has inverted all the ancient truths and turned all institutions upside down and against the purposes they originally served. Military officers promote a social agenda that undermines the defense of the nation; clergymen preach a gospel concocted out of Marxism, feminism, and homosexualism; teachers spend their lives emptying their students’ heads of anything true or useful; scholars and writers who should be seeking and sharing truth devote themselves to telling the Big Lie with a dedication that would have warmed the cockles of Dr. Goebbels’ cold cold heart. The left has truly triumphed.
The left, in the technical sense, came into existence during the French Revolution, but the principles—or rather the attitudes—of the left were manifest centuries earlier, in the ironic moral subversion of Montaigne and Voltaire, in Descartes’ rejection of tradition, in the sexual liberation and neopaganism of Renaissance Florence. Those towering geniuses of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment wrote the playbook for the revolutions that destroyed monarchy and aristocracy, subverted the Church, stripped away property rights and enervated free enterprise, and is finally, under the guise of saving the environment, working to reinvent or eliminate the human race.
In attempting to counter this Revolution, the right has, for the most, accomplished little or nothing. This is partly because the right always defines itself in relation to the latest phase of leftist revolution: It is right, as opposed to left, and conservative, as opposed to liberal or liberating. The most extreme term, reactionary, is also the most revealing. The left acts; the right reacts.
Counterrevolutionaries, who in principle oppose the Revolution, are no real exception. Like Brer Rabbit, they have embraced the tar baby of revolution and cannot let it go. This is because, like other conservatives, counterrevolutionaries are restorationists: Their goal is to restore the world of their childhood or their parents’ childhood. In America this takes the comical form of Republicans who are convinced that the administration of President Eisenhower was American culture’s palmiest day, but such nostalgia is only slightly more misplaced than the faith expressed by French counterrevolutionaries in the wisdom and justice of the Ancien Régime.
It is a truism, but worth repeating, that the foundation for the tyrannies of the Jacobin republic and its successors was laid by the French monarchy. From François I to Louis XIV, the kings of France and their advisors sought to concentrate power in the hands of the state by depriving their rivals—the provincial aristocracy and the Church—of their traditional authority and responsibilities. By 1700 Louis XIV had suppressed the provincial nobility, subdued the Church to the monarchy, and created a military establishment that made France the most admired and feared country in Europe.
His admirers probably thought the price for glory was small enough: ruinously unsuccessful wars with England, an enervated elite class, a top-heavy administrative bureaucracy whose officials worked more for their own interest than for the king’s or the nation’s. If France had been able to go through a period of creative dissolution, the Church and provinces might have experienced the resurgence that Burke seems to have envisioned when he pointed out to the French, “In your old states you . . . had all that combination and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction, which in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers draws out the harmony of the universe.”
Burke’s Machiavellian insight—that liberty is the product not of peaceful simplicity but of complexity and conflict—was lost on the reactionaries. Devolution was hardly ever part of the counterrevolutionary agenda. For all the genuine richness and depth of the French right, they could never escape the revolution, which many of them mistakenly restricted to the Jacobins and their intellectual mentors. From Maistre to Maurras, the drums beat out the familiar tattoo: Greatness comes from national unity, the absolute and undivided power of the sovereign.
This weakness, which is perhaps only a strong tendency among French counterrevolutionaries—by far the deepest and most committed rightists of the past two centuries—has a fortiori been the rule for Anglo-American conservatives since the 20th century. Trapped in our naive revolutionary myths—the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution—we cannot divest ourselves of the enemy’s rhetoric. Abortion is opposed on the grounds of a right to life, and the right to possess guns is defended on entirely irrelevant constitutional grounds.
For the most part, American conservatives were delighted with the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down a Chicago law banning the possession of handguns. No matter that the Second Amendment—like the First—was supposed to be applied not to the states but only to the federal government. Like adolescents, conservatives always want what they want when they want it. The same can be said for their howls of protests over a homosexual federal judge’s ruling that there was no justification in nature or the Constitution for California’s ban on same-sex “marriage.” But these same conservatives thought they could use government to save the institution of marriage. In both cases, California and Chicago, conservatives based their arguments on the good they intended.
Yes, the conservatives grudgingly conceded, the Chicago law was justifiable under the original Constitution, but times had changed, and we have to fight on new ground—ground the enemy has chosen. Forgetting Napoleon’s observation that he never lost a battle when he could choose the time and the place, conservatives have, over the long haul, lost every battle they have fought—or pretended to fight. In the Chicago case, what they advocate is to take jurisdiction away from states and local communities and invest it in the federal government; in California, the Christian conservatives think it is a good idea for the government of California to define what marriage is.
The underlying question is not what the Constitution says or how the Constitution can be manipulated: The Constitution of 1787 has been dead for 145 years, and even the reinvented nationalist Constitution, which lasted less than another century, is also a dead letter. No, the underlying question is how much power should be surrendered to an imperial government. Conservatives who argue, usually on the basis of natural rights or the principle of equality, that the government of the United States should have the power to promote educational standards, regulate firearms, protect marriage, and even define life are at best double agents who serve the Revolution.
The conservative embrace of big government is not simply a question of expanding budgets and responsibilities, but one of extent. The only way to limit the size and scope of government is to limit the range of its jurisdiction. A village can make do with town meetings, a powerless mayor, and a few part-time employees to write parking tickets and hand out dog licenses; a city of several million requires a large apparatus of cops and bureaucrats; an empire of 300 million, unless it is run on the decentralized lines of the early Roman Empire or 19th-century Switzerland, is inherently tyrannical.
American conservative politicians, from Goldwater to the Tea Party leaders, would insist that their primary goal is to limit the federal government to the modest dimensions envisioned by the Constitution of 1787, though few, if any, would endorse the arguments for the sovereignty of the states and their constitutional right to nullify federal laws that Jefferson proclaimed in the Kentucky Resolves. But what, in any practical way, have conservative politicians ever done except to increase the power and authority of the federal government?
Anyone who has observed American politics even in the limited period of a single lifetime should have noted that fewer and fewer rulers exercise control over more and more subjects. The concentration of political power has been facilitated by a parallel concentration of economic and social power. It is easy to control mass man when his character and opinions are formed by mass media. In our absolute state, in which the presidency is becoming a demagogic dictatorship, the presidents themselves are mere figureheads for the interests that put them in power. The people who control and administer that power number, probably, in the thousands.
The only political measures or movements that should be supported are those that devolve government away from Washington to state capitols, from state capitols to the governments of counties and cities, and from counties and cities to the real communities of villages and neighborhoods. Not only will good causes, such as a pro-life amendment to the Constitution, do more harm than good; they are inherently tyrannical. A politician with a cause wants to make himself a moral dictator. The proper political response to court-imposed abortion rights is not to increase the power of the federal government but to strip the federal courts of the powers that have been usurped by judges.
It is a vicious cycle: First the revolutionaries, in the name of suppressing the institutions of the old regime, arrogate more and more power for themselves; then the counterrevolutionaries, in opposing the Revolution, lay waste the already battered provinces, churches, and families, to build up their own tyranny of virtue. That is what conservatives mean by their convenient rhetorical defense, that they are being practical or dealing with political reality. With enemies like these, the devil needs no friends.