People who know me realize that in the United States I move largely in conservative circles. I write for conservative publishers and periodicals and lecture largely to conservative audiences. I feel at home with them and usually share their views. The vast majority of my friends in America consider themselves to be conservatives, and thus I am treated as one on the grounds of “guilt by association.” But, though you can find me in the Lexikon des Konservatismus, I have never called myself a conservative, (hi that book, you can also find Friedrich von Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Wilhelm Roepke, which shows that in Europe, conservatives and liberals are very close neighbors and not really opposites.)
I candidly call myself a rationalist, an arch-liberal, an extreme rightist, and a devout Catholic. A few Europeans, and certainly most Americans, will raise their eyebrows or shake their heads. Of course, we are talking primarily about labels. All too often, we do not understand each other when talking across the Atlantic. While Europe is a peninsula of Asia, North America is a gigantic island which inherited its ideas and ideals from a much smaller cluster of islands, whose inhabitants are very reluctant Europeans. No wonder that identical words often have different meanings on either side of the Channel or of the Atlantic.
My religion makes me a rationalist. Modern rationalism is a grandchild of scholasticism, which was profoundly influenced by Aristotle. I am, moreover, a liberal. Worldwide, genuine liberals are not necessarily of the same opinion, yet one thing is certain: What is called liberalism today in America has nothing to do with liberalism elsewhere. All genuine liberals are dedicated to personal freedom and reject the family-replacing provider-state, wrongly called the “welfare state.” How did it happen that the term “liberal” was so totally perverted in America? Probably because genuine liberalism tries to be openminded (which, while maintaining a critical sense, we all have to be). The “House of Liberalism” with its open windows and open doors became a victim of the howling storms sweeping through its rooms. And these winds had a distinctly leftist character. So “liberalism” in America became the very opposite of what it is elsewhere and totally at variance with “conservatism.” In Europe, a liberal is like an American conservative, and liberals more often than not cooperate with conservatives. The Italian liberals sit, naturally, on the right side of the Chamber, to the right of the Democristiani, and I write occasionally for Stanczyk, a Polish review of “conservative-liberal monarchists.”
The liberal ideal is “personalistic” and therefore compatible with Christianity. Eleutheria, freedom, figures in the New Testament, while isotes (in the sense of equality) does not. Men and women are not only obviously unequal physically, intellectually, and morally, but are also certainly not “equal before God.” If Judas and St. John the Baptist are “equal before God,” then Christianity should close up shop and the Day of Judgment should be changed into a hootenanny. R.L. Bruekberger, O.P., rightly calls the New Testament a message of absolute human inequality.
All truly great liberal thinkers have openly or secretly rejected democracy. On the other hand, the masses in liberal democracies usually cannot distinguish between liberty and equality. Illiberal acts can be very democratic, in the sense of being approved by majorities, and freedoms can be resented (or prohibited) by majorities. A rightist using his brain cannot possibly stand for democracy except in small villages where the people know each other and are faced by very simple administrative problems. Even Rousseau admitted in his Contrat Social that democracy is feasible only among angels or, in another passage, in tiny areas. Democracy is unacceptable to the rightist, who realizes that the voters and those voted into power must understand history, geography, polities, law, sociology, military affairs, and economics to have a moral right to be politically active and decisive. (Think about the knowledge, skill, and experience a surgeon must have to assume responsibility over the lives of hundreds of people, while mere amateur politicians, due to their “popularity,” wield power over the survival of millions.)
Democracy also poses a profound theological problem: It attempts to eliminate rule (government), which is a curse resulting from Original Sin, and replace it with “self-government,” which does not exist. Democracy is rule not “of the people,” but of a majority over a minority, earning Voltaire’s comment that he preferred to live under the paw of a lion rather than under the teeth of a thousand rats. Democracy has not the slightest rational or scientific foundation, which is why the late Crane Brinton argued that it could only become in the long run a purely fideistic secular religion. Since government is the result of Original Sin, one has to be very modest in all one’s expectations.
The return to democracy, a political form of antiquity which had failed completely and earned the ridicule and censure of the three philosophers who are the pillars of our civilization—Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle —is one of the most amazing features of the last 200 years. My American readers should realize that democracy came to their country as a gradual alien influence. It is mentioned neither in the Declaration nor in the Constitution, nor do we find in these documents the noun “Republic.” Even Jefferson acknowledged (in the Declaration) that a free people can have a monarch as a ruler. Democracy, however, belongs to the left, and to arrive at our problem, which is how to choose between the terms “conservative” and “rightist,” we have to deal with two intermediary questions: the distinction between right and left, and the very important religious background of our problem.
In Jonah 4:10, we read that in Nineveh the inhabitants were so stupid that they could not distinguish between right and left. This situation, however, we now find all over the world. What is “right”? Right is what is true, valid, and correct, regardless of whether it is old, traditional, and inherited, or contemporary, or planned for the future. Russell Kirk wrote a brilliant book, directed, as the title says, against the Enemies of the Permanent Things. And these “permanent things”—ideas, convictions, habits, customs, laws—are, if truly valid, what the “rightist” wants to preserve and defend. He will also not be overly eager to effect changes just for the sake of change, as stability has a positive value (in this age of confusion, more so than ever). “Rightist” is a timeless expression. “Conservative” implies a stop.
While the “rightist” stands for the “permanent things”—reasonable freedom, God’s Word, transcendent values, personality, a socially mutable verticality—the “leftist” has practically the opposite vision: anti-personalist collectivism, identitarian uniformity and equality, horizontality, ethnicism, racism, materialism. Since 1989, leftism has largely abandoned state capitalism (socialism) and has been more lenient toward private enterprise, but it has also sped up its march toward Gomorrah.
International socialism and national socialism are both equally leftist, and he who reluctantly admits that they are somewhat alike, often stammers that “extremes meet”—which is a fausse ideé claire, a false but clear idea. Extremes obviously never meet, or ice would be like boiling water, giants like dwarfs, or scholars like illiterates. Of course, competitors hate each other often more than adversaries; thus, one brewer may hate another brewer more than he does tire prohibitionist, but hostile brewers might join against the prohibitionist, as the very modern Third Reich (which did not “turn back the clock”) joined with the “progressive” Soviet Union against “reactionary” Poland. Indeed, National Socialism represented an extreme form of leftism, as Goebbels declared on December 6, 1931, in Der Angriff: “We are the German left and despise bourgeois nationalism.” In the Horst Wesnel Lied, their official hymn, the National Socialists mourned their comrades shot by the “Red Front and the Reactionaries,” and noble rightist officers tried to slaughter the Beast, who boasted that he represented “German Democracy.” In 1926, Goebbels still proclaimed that he was a “German Communist,” but later declared that National Socialism was the German counterpart to the French Revolution. That late French revival of democracy was a sadistic sex orgy without parallel in world history in which pregnant women were squeezed in wine-and-fruit presses, mothers with children were slowly roasted in baker’s ovens, and naked fathers and daughters were tied together and drowned in “republican weddings.” In Pont-de-Cé, a factory was erected in which the skins of the murdered Vendéens were used to manufacture riding breeches and book covers. Not even the heirs of the French Revolution, who met in 1939 flying their red banners in the heart of Poland, engaged in similar atrocities: They committed murders in much greater quantity, but never achieved the diabolical quality of their 18th-century ancestors.
The extermination of Christianity was a major goal of the revolutions of 17S9 and 1917, and both rightists and conservatives have been identified with the defense of religion. However, the religious implications of our discussion of these terms go beyond the propaganda of both Catholics and Protestants. The thesis that there is a straight line of development from the Reformation to the First Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and its three offspring is extremely popular among Catholic rightists. Luther appeared as a liberal, democratic progressivist who was riding high on the waves of the Renaissance and therefore was responsible for the unspeakable atrocities of our infamous century Reacting indirectly to this conviction, ordinary Catholics, especially in the United States, engaged in a fulsome praise of the Middle Ages. As a matter of fact, in the United States much more so than in Europe, there exists between Catholics and Protestants an ignoble competition in misrepresenting the character of the Reformation. Luther and Calvin rebelled (violently, in fact) against the spirit of Christian humanism and the Renaissance. The real “moment” of the Reformation is the winter of 1510-11, when Luther stayed in Rome and was confronted by the spirit of antiquity in the form of the Renaissance, which, until then, he had known only in a purely literary form. Now he could see it and touch it with his hands.
The reformers, as medieval men, were arch-conservatives, but they also denied free will and believed in predestination, opposed reason, had contempt for philosophy, hoped for salvation by “faith alone,” and were (with the exception of Zwingli) convinced that all the sages of antiquity (just as all non-Christians) were roasting in the everlasting fires of Hell. They established state churches under secular rulers and were “conservatives” in the most literal sense of the word. They accused the Catholic Church for additions, meaning changes, and in this they were correct. They wanted to go “back” to an imaginary “original Church.” But the Catholic Church is not “conservative”: Without changing her foundations and like a skyscraper in construction, she is “additive.” (She might change rituals, laws, and regulations, and even add new dogmas, but never “cancel” one. She is a live body.) This is the reason why there are no conservative parties in Europe’s Catholic countries. You can have parties with the “conservative” label in Scandinavia, Britain, or Canada, but not in Spain, Austria, Italy, or Slovakia. (There are, I have to admit, parties with strong Catholic support calling themselves “Christian Democratic,” even though Leo XIII, in the encyclical Graves de communi, forbade the political use of this term, but few politicians are serious readers.)
The immediate result of the Reformation was a loss of general liberties. Life in Geneva became even more totalitarian than in the Massachusetts of the Puritans. In truly post-medieval countries, however, life had become sweet, humane, and enormously variable. Everett Dean Martin, a Congregational minister, in his Liberty (1930) said that Americans, having missed the Renaissance, have never had a chance truly to be free, and the same suspicion lies behind D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature. To believe that freedom can be given, granted, or assured by mere legislation, by paragraphs and constitutions, is naive (the same naïveté is at the bottom of feminism).
During the Enlightenment, “Protestantism” was perverted into the very contrary of what the Reformers aimed at: a very strict, disciplined, and severe form of simple, fideistic Christianity, culturally almost inactive and suspicious of all additions, of “frills.” Pastor Niemoller, who later received the Lenin Prize, explained to me in 1947 that Protestants should not be afraid of a communist wave of oppression because all they need is a handy, small pocket Bible printed on India paper, while the poor Catholics need culture: architecture, painting, literature, poetry, musical composition, and so forth.
In the United States, the true believers of the Reformation faiths do not form exactly the general staff of the conservative movement, but certainly a very large segment of the rank and file. Among American conservatives, one also can find (ex-liberal) libertarians, true rightists, populist intellectual-baiting democrats, evangelical fundamentalists, and Lefebvrists. Some merely want to protect their savings, others primarily want to fight “permissive crime,” while few have the courage to attack what had been called the “Religion of Democracy,” which Eric Vocgelin rightly considered a gnostic phenomenon. Very rare are those who envisage or plan a real alternative or realize that a “conservative,” a man or a woman on the right, is, at least at heart, a real revolutionary and must reject the present order, which, of course, will pass as does ever)’thing else. There is no “end of history.” SLAT CRUX DUM VOLVITUR ORBIS (“The Cross stands while the Earth turns around”). Yet without planning for a future in which quality (i.e., knowledge, experience, and solid ethics) prevails, much worse might follow. The mere counting of noses must come to an end. We ought to learn from Ecclesiasticus 38:25-39.
There are two subjects which I should touch upon since they are of grave concern to American conservatives —ideologies and Utopias. Since ideologies and the efforts to realize Utopias have created immense harm and suffering in the last 200 years —a minimum of 80 million victims —they can be viewed very negatively. The same could be said of religions, constitutions, sexual activities, educational theories, the mass media, ears, airplanes, trade unions, and even sports. Man is not only a religious but also an ideological animal. Put anybody on a couch and question him for 20 minutes, and the dim outline of an ideology will appear, a more or less coherent view of life in this world (and also in the next one). Ideologies are inescapable to thinking people, and the} might either grow out of a religious faith or—and here lies the great danger—replace it, becoming sometimes a fanatical secular religion.
The same is true of Utopias. An Outopos is a vision of a nonexistent place or order which, as an improvement, ought to be established. Like reason, imagination is, after all, one of the great human privileges, and since this world is, in the words of the Psalmist and of Christian prayers, a “Valley of Tears,” it is perfectly legitimate to make plans for a general improvement. Malheur a celui qui n’a jamais rêvé, Gustave Thibon told us: “Woe to him who has never dreamt.” Saint Thomas More gave us the term “Utopia,” and this martyr to the Faith playfully designed a social and political order as far as it could be established without revelation and resting solely on reason.
Yet certain Utopias can become ideological substitutes for Christ’s promises. Just as there are acceptable, mediocre, crazy, and Satanic ideologies, a similar distinction has to be made among Utopias. Some, conflicting with reason, could never be realized; others might be “organized,” but only with inhuman efforts and sacrifices, which render them unreasonable; others again are desirable and feasible. Today, we certainly have to reflect on an order to be established after the demise of the democratic experiment whose hypocritical traits are evident, especially to the psychologically oriented philosopher of history. (There is no “American Experiment,” but only a democratic experiment in America, which the United States will outlive.)
Allan Bloom remarked that all great European thinkers are men of the right, but I would say the same about America, unless you rank Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, John Dewey, and B.F. Skinner among the “Great Thinkers.” 1 dedicated my little German book on democracy (1996) to the Swiss and American authors who have influenced me in my political writing, though only those who have gone to their reward. The list of Americans starts alphabetically with John and Henry Adams and ends with Richard M. Weaver. Not all of them would have called themselves “conservatives,” but none of them “liberals” in the present debased American verbiage.
As a Catholic, I have to think “globally.” I want the ideas and ideals of the right to triumph (at least in our civilization), and therefore, I view and review all terms critically. The area where the word “conservative” has a magnetic attraction is rather small: North America and Northern and Western Europe. Conservative parties and movements have not offered or produced real alternatives and have not done much else but bemoan and stem a bit the leftward drift of state and society. In this, they have had more failures than successes, partly because the left appeals more to the “flesh” than to the spirit, and partly because man is an ideological animal and “conservatism” has provided us with neither an ideology nor even a passable Utopia. To act solely as a brake to an evil evolutionary or revolutionary process is not an inspiring program. Many “conservatisms” bearing that label are merely castrated forms of leftism.
We must face the fact that the term “conservative” has a musty smell in the nostrils of modern man, who is looking for “Instant Paradise.” “Conservatism,” moreover, does not tell us what we want to conserve. We certainly do not desire to preserve the status quo, but rather the “permanent things,” which are the right things. And “right,” as I have said before, has in all languages a positive meaning, while left has a negative one—even in Arabic, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Japanese. It has deeper psychological and more universal roots than “conservative.” And this is the reason I often start or terminate my lectures on all continents with the simple statement: Ladies and gentlemen, right is right, and left is wrong!