Wednesday, March 22, 2006

The Meaning of “Conservative” and the Confusion of “left” and “right”

From time to time one comes across definitions or arguments elegantly set out that, deserve wider exposure. Simply because there are those who read this who do not read The Spectator out of England, this must be considered “wider exposure” even though it is a very narrow version of width.

A piece deserving wider exposure is a recent column by the polymath English historian and writer, Paul Johnson. His article, in a recent issue of England’s top conservative journal The Spectator and dealt with the question of which historical personage most deserves the title “right wing.” In particular, Johnson questioned whether either Adolf Hitler or Genghis Khan were “right- wing.”

Of course the terms “right wing” and “left wing” are not particularly helpful for any important cultural questions and usually only serve as pigeon-holes for the intellectually lazy. That they are commonly used merely indicates how widespread such laziness is.

Johnson, however, wishes to look at the frequently used phrase “to the right of Genghis Kahn” in terms of a more meaningful marker of political beliefs: the term “conservative.” He then decides, I think wrongly, to see whether a person can be considered “right-wing” by virtue of whether or not they measure up to a meaningful definition of “conservative.” Beyond that, however, he has some very strong points to make.

Johnson’s error first. He accepts that to be “right-wing” is to be conservative yet, as perusing his own list below indicates, this is not necessarily so at all. Many contemporary libertarians who wouldn’t be caught dead with a moral proposition quite happily refer to themselves as “right wing” but would not satisfy a rigorous definition of “conservative” at all.

The language of “right” and “left” is just so much air and its use amongst otherwise intelligent people a further sign of the weakening of contemporary analysis - -such as other terms of that sort - - such as “values.” Still, his reminder of the characteristics of “being a conservative” are worth setting out since he comes to the conclusion that neither Genghis Khan nor Hitler were “conservative” or “right-wing” and makes a convincing case for the former in doing so. His treatment of these interlocking ideas is most useful. According to Johnson there are “six indispensable hallmarks of a conservative.” These are:

1) Firm belief in one, beneficent and omnipotent God;
2) Absolute morality as the basis of public law;
3) Strict limits on the size of the state;
4) Respect for the multiplicity of traditional power centres;
5) Restraint and self-restraint in all things;
6) Search for the right balance between the individual and the traditional units of society.
(“Who was the most Right-wing Man in History?” The Spectator, 25 February 2006, 34).
This list puts one in mind of similar ones contained in the pages of several of Russell Kirk’s books. For example, in The Conservative Mind (1953) the diminutive professor, who died in 1994 and who resembled nothing so much as a hobbit in his later years, set out a list of six (later amended to 10) indicia of the conservative. Here are Kirk’s six canons:

1. Conservatives believe there exists a transcendent moral order to which society ought to conform; as a corollary, political problems are, at bottom, religious problems.

2. Conservatives believe that society ought to change slowly, with caution and with acknowledgement that the whole of wisdom exceeds our partial knowledge, and hence, all things contain mysteries that shouldn’t be cast aside merely because we do not understand their importance.

3. Conservatives respect tradition and the wisdom of their ancestors, even those who are dead [what G.K. Chesterton referred to as giving a vote to our ancestors or “the democracy of the dead.”]

4. Conservatives believe all public measures should be guided by prudence—i.e., concern for long-term consequences, not just short-term expediency.

5. Conservatives believe that different people have different callings, and do not think the differences—social, economic, educational—should be eliminated. As a corollary, conservatives believe complete equality on earth cannot be obtained, is not desirable, and ought not be attempted (save in the courts), and therefore
governmental attempts to take private property from the rich to give it to the poor in an attempt to level the economic playing field is a bad idea.

6. Conservatives believe that mankind is imperfectible [there is no earthy utopia
obtainable by law or politics].

(The Conservative Mind [Chicago: Regnery], 1953, 7 – 8.)

Kirk’s sixth canon is important and missing from Johnson’s list. Still, the result of applying these to Genghis Khan and to Hitler is clear. Neither was conservative by any measure. As Johnson sets out with respect to Hitler:

Hitler broke all these rules; he was an atheistic pagan, a moral relativist, a totalitarian, an ultra-centralist, an uninhibited exhibitionist and a collectivist. In many ways Stalin was to the right of him.

Johnson also notes that conservatives are not afraid to use force or to use it thoroughly if necessary but do so as a last resort and with Hitler (and Stalin) it was the first.

Stalin, who was hardly “right”, however, “…killed even more people than Hitler and Mao twice as many again, 70 million at the latest count.” So, says Johnson, “…logically Genghis should have taken on this political coloration, and the phrase should run, “he’s even to the left of Genghis Khan.” Well, no. The best thing to say about “left” and “right” is perhaps “his right and left wings hit when he flies” which just about sums it up the reality of “right/left” politics.

Contemporary politics that use terms such as “liberal” and “conservative” to describe parties that are not particularly either (one might well ask, for example, what is the real difference in Canada between “liberals” and “conservatives” today in terms of well worked out agenda and social vision - - in light of the lists set out above?) are as confused as the attribution of “left” or “right” to Hitler or Genghis Kahn. Even many contemporary “socialists” are more dead than red in terms of the principles historically understood as socialist.

Perhaps the language of “left” and “right” needs simply to be jettisoned. Certainly we do not use it at the Centre as it hides more than it communicates. Understanding the terms above, however, suggests that the term “conservative” still has useful work to do - - once we understand its content.

Conservative? Moi? It all depends on what you mean by the term.

CENTREBLOG: Volume 115
Iain T. Benson©