That afternoon, as Paul and I were gassing on about the evil neocons, one of us said something like, “”If they are neoonservatives, what are we then, paleolithic conservatives or palaeocons?” In my recollection, I was the first to utter the word, though I believe Paul also claims credit. I won’t dispute the point. It hardly matters.
I do know that Chris Kopff and I in those days used to joke about the different types of conservatives who longed for different periods of history. The neocons liked the 50’s while the fusionists preferred the period before the New Deal. Neoconfederates went back to the antebellum South, Russell Kirk had his heart in the 18th and 19th century England, Kopff and I looked back to classical antiquity, while Walter Burkert, the world’s expert on Greek religion, had argued in his book Homo Necans, that the first great breakthrough toward human civilization came in the Paleolithic age when primitive hunters quit eating each other and developed the ritual of animal sacrifice. As Kopff and I used to joke, Burkert was, in this sense, the ultimate conservative.
From the beginning, there was a fundamental divergence on the meaning of palaeoconservative. Paul—and his neconservative enemies—thought we were claiming to be the authentic heirs to the postwar conservatives at The National Review. There was obviously some truth in this. Unlike the neocons, we had not signed onto any of the social revolutions that had hit America since roughly 1970—feminism, homosexualism, the marriage—or more properly the divorce–revolution, open immigration, globalism, global democratism, what is now known as multi-culturalism, and the civil rights revolution—to name only the most obvious.
As a student, I had not only sympathized with the civil rights movement but had openly associated with some of the leftists associated with the very red Highlander Folk School. I even took part in a few marches and sit-ins, but, while I continued to believe in a system of equal rights under the law, I was completely opposed to unmerited claims to social and economic equality. All these claims undermined the traditional authority of state and local governments and increased the powers of Washington over the lives of everyone.
Nonetheless, as sympathetic as I was with the good work that NR conservatives had done in resisting the revolution, I had never found either the magazine or its ideology either interesting or satisfying. The early Bill Buckley had displayed both courage and charm, but he had never thought through what it was he believed. I was grateful for the opportunity to write for NR and thought well of many of the magazine’s regular contributors and editors, such as Jeffrey Hart, Chilton Williamson, John Simon, and Florence King, but I never felt at home in its pages. When Bill, typically in an unsigned article, attacked us for agreeing with him on immigration, I was not terribly surprised or disappointed.
I was more impressed with the disgruntled American liberals between the two World Wars: H.L. Mencken, Albert Jay Nock, and even John T. Flynn. The wrote better than most NR contributors, and while they claimed to be liberals, they were more reactionary, partly because they were better read. When Gottfried and I were working on the second edition of The Conservative Movement, I wrote the chapters on the Old Right and the Libertarians, though I later decided to take my name off the project, partly because I was now a character in the book and partly because I was uncomfortable with Gottfried’s somewhat relaxed approach to fact-checking.
In those years, I was working on The Politics of Human Nature, and it seemed to me that the revolutions of my own time had gone well beyond the French and Russian revolutions and had adopted as their object the elimination of mankind both as the mammalian species that had evolved over a million years and as the creature made in the image of God. It seemed to me then—and it seems even more clear today—that whatever practical good conservatives might hope to do in shaping a political debate, our real mission was to resist and if possible roll back the progress of what C.S. Lewis had so fittingly called The Abolition of Man. There were, in other words, far bigger fish to fry than the size of the Federal budget or the absurdities of Fritz Mondale and Michael Dukakis.
What Palaeoconservatism Is Not
Before attempting to say what palaeoconservatism is, I should say a little about what it is not. Palaeoconservatism is not a movement, and if it were, I should be the last person in the world to join. In this I have to confess that Russell Kirk was right in avoiding group identification, though I was disappointed when he refused to join the John Randolph Club, giving me his usual answer to such requests: “I am a lone wolf.” Part of Kirk’s reluctance stemmed from our inclusion of libertarians, whom he derided as “chirping sectaries,” a phrase from Edmund Burke he had been applying to them for decades. I think he would have agreed with the Marquis of Halifax that a party is at best a conspiracy against the nation. I should add to Halifax’s insight that a political movement is only an unsuccessful party.
The only movement I am willing to belong to is historic Christianity, and the only ideological creeds I profess are the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. I know there are people who claim to belong to some kind of palaeoconservative movement, but when I read some of what they write—though they are generally decent enough people—I remember Marx’s rueful statement, made late in his long career of plotting and sedition, that whatever he was, it was not a Marxist.
Ideological movements are almost always based on what the leaders hate: men, white people, the rich, Jews, foreigners, Catholics, the bourgeoisie. When movements join forces to collaborate, hatred is always the cement. In the 1980’s American Nazis joined with various Klan groups, despite the obvious problem that the KKK had been traditionally an instrument of American nationalism. Nonetheless, both groups disliked blacks and Jews, and that was sufficient common ground on which to take a stand. At The National Review, traditionalists (who believed in tradition and the social order) made common cause with classical liberals, because both groups saw big government as an enemy of what they cherished. As a practical matter, however, free markets always trumped culture and tradition, if only because businessmen are always happy to pay people to tell them that greed is, after all, not just good but the ultimate good.
Movements and their members suffer from the good old American vice of doing good. Every American reformer or political intellectual seems to have a plan or project for improving humanity, and when the plans go awry and create incredible mischief, as classical liberalism, prohibition, and feminism have done, then some new do-gooder comes along with another plan like state socialism, drug legalization, or the Men’s Movement. Like Jefferson Davis, speaking for the South, palaeoconservatives can say, “All we ask is to be let alone.” Sam Francis used to ridicule this attitude as unrealistic and defeatist, but what is the alternative? Perpetual war for perpetual peace? Armed revolution? Terrorism? Davis was a trained and battle-hardened military officer. He knew the men of the South would have to fight for the right to be left alone, but like most sensible people he had better things to do with his life than to join crusades.
My personal motto, borrowed from Hank Williams, has been for at least three decades: “Why don’t you mind your own business, ’cause if you’d mind your own business, you won’t be minding mine.”
If palaeoconservatism is not a movement or a party, then is it an ideology? Not at all. An ideology—as opposed to a philosophy—is a system of ideas adopted to protect or advance the interests of a particular class or group. Classical liberalism, as Marx knew, was an ideology to protect capitalists; feminism is an ideology that allegedly aims at equal rights for women as a subset of humanity; environmentalism protects ordinary people from the pollution caused by capitalism, socialism is supposed to empower and support the working class, and so on and so forth. Of course, in reality, socialism empowers and enriches only the leaders of Marxist parties and labor unions at the expense of everyone else, feminism helps a small set of leftist women, predominantly lesbians. One of the final stages of the revolution against human nature is the coalition of environmentalists, vegetarians, animal rights activists, and population control fanatics that seeks to gain control over all the world’s resources, dictating not only what we can eat and produce but who shall live and who shall not.
Members of an ideological movement are trained and disciplined like attack dogs and required to memorize the movement’s slogans and arguments, and if a rational opponent goes through their panoply, defeating one after another of their positions form A to Z, the ideologue, upon giving up Z, retorts, “Yes, but what about A.” This technique was first explained to me by an Alexandrian Greek who had debated many Communists, but it applies equally well to libertarians, racialist reductionists, and Dittoheads.
My late friend Russell Kirk was, thank Heaven, no intellectual, and he hated the very word ideology. Our mutual friend, Erik v. Kuehneldt-Leddihn saw this as a weakness in Anglo-American conservatism. In fact it was a great strength. The weakness in the political thinking of Edmund Burke and his disciples was not their rejection of ideology but their aversion to philosophy (including the natural philosophy we call science) and their sentimental attachment to historical myth, like England’s Glorious Revolution or the doctrine of American Exceptionalism. (More on this in later chapters.)
I tried to set forth some of this in a brief article for the Spectator, in the days I could still write for English publications. An editor—I don’t know if it was Frank Johnson or his deputy Stuart Reid—gave it the fanciful title, “Tories Back Wrong Philosopher.” I thought the title was quite funny. Peter Stanlis, the author of the excellent and seminal study of Burke’s thought, Edmnund Burke and the Natural Law, did not, though he was kind enough only to open up once on the subject, at least in my presence.
A few years before coming to Chronicles, while I was still living in McClellanville, South Carolina, I was corresponding with Thomas Molnar about some things he had written. We later became friends, and I learned a great deal from him, but nothing more important than his insights on the fatal pattern of revolution and counterrevolution that had infected not only political thought but political action. Along the way, those who oppose the revolution, not only create in their reaction a whole new set of problems but embrace the psychology of revolution.
I am not doing justice to my friend’s analysis, but under Molnar’s influence I concluded that counter-revolutionaries end up as revolutionaries, albeit on the other side. Another friend, Robert Nisbet, showed in his best book (The Sociological Tradition) how utopian socialism developed as a reaction to the social devastation caused by the French Revolution. If Robespierre was mad, Fourier and Comte were even madder, and Marx still more insane. What could be worse than Marxism? If you can ask that question you have not read anti-Marxist libertarians like Ayn Rand.
If palaeoconservatism is neither a movement nor an ideology—both of which are surrogate religions—then, you may ask, is it a philosophy? Not at all. There are, of course, philosophers and political thinkers who have inspired and informed palaeoconservative thought. I might just mention, first and foremost, Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Althusius, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and, on a lower level, Fitzjames Stephen, Henry Sumner Maine. But most people who regard themselves as palaeoconservative have never read Althusius or Maine, and whatever a philosophy is or should be, it is not for must of us a means of grappling with the social and political world in which we find ourselves.
I find it more useful to think of palaeoconservatism as an approach or style of political thinking and acting. It shares many of the concerns of earlier conservative thought—a respect for order, a love of personal liberty, and a willingness to learn from tradition, but it is both more coherent and a good deal more skeptical of propaganda and political mythology. Though perfectly willing to make compromises with political realities, palaeoconservatives are not willing to surrender their principles or their loyalties or their integrity for the sake of a job in Washington or a column in The New York Times. It was probably Sam Francis who first pointed out to us what should have been obvious, that despite our pious rhetoric about the good old days of The National Review, palaeoconservatives had quickly evolved well beyond anything imagined by Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer, or William F. Buckley, Jr.