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Embracing the Paradox of Conservative Radicalism by Harrison Pitt

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Essay

Embracing the Paradox of Conservative Radicalism

"School of Athens" (ca. 1509-1511), a 500 x 770 cm fresco by Rafael (1483-1520) depicts the greatest thinkers from classical antiquity and is considered an ideal representation of humanistic influence on art during the Renaissance. Renaissance humanism emphasized the studia humanitatis: grammar, rhetoric, history, poetry, and moral philosophy. The fresco is located in the Vatican Museums.

The late Sir Roger Scruton was commonly praised as the most distinguished conservative philosopher since Edmund Burke. In fact, by the time of his death last year, Scruton had probably surpassed the Irish-born English statesman who so deeply influenced him. Scruton outdid Burke in the extraordinary variety of subjects to which he brought his acute intellect. Beyond philosophy—his own discipline—Scruton wrote on music, law, aesthetics, history, architecture, wine, hunting, sex, politics, literature, ecclesiology, Islamic culture and more. Burke’s achievements, whilst undeniably impressive, appear somewhat narrow alongside Scruton’s gifts to the world.

It is always a joy to get lost in Scruton’s books, but there is often a niggling sense that his scholarly reflections are perhaps limited in their practical use. This is especially true at a time when the culture war has made conservatives sceptical of the very institutions they once regarded as theirs, and consequently swore to defend. The achievements of Western civilisation have not been destroyed, but hollowed out and made to serve new masters. Churches, schools, universities, and charitable trusts—these little platoons still exist and on rare occasions even fulfil their proper purpose. But it has belatedly dawned on conservatives that, while these institutions have been allowed to keep their Christian names and their beautiful buildings, they are almost universally controlled by a new priesthood, whose chief doctrines are ‘equality’ and ‘diversity.’

Thus many churches preach with left-wing buzzwords rather than with the language of the Gospel. Universities instruct students in the art of repudiating the great works which they are supposed to promote as guides to virtue and self-understanding. Even charities have been known to ‘cancel’ trustees—not for embezzling donations or accepting bribes, but for criticising the destructive politics of Black Lives Matter.

Conservatives naturally disapprove of all this, but what should be our practical response? Scruton was surely correct to argue that conservatism is a philosophy of love. We Europeans share a unique history and a breath-taking civilisational pedigree. We are also heirs to distinctive national inheritances—patterns of settling which complement each other but also vary. The task of a conservative is to cherish the best parts of our inheritance and to defend such gifts against those who want them sacrificed to the gods of ‘progress.’ Historically, this has meant honouring traditional institutions and resisting attempts to centralise the state and hijack what belongs more to civil society, in the ideological pursuit of some abstract, utopian goal. But if conservatism is about love for the society that is ours, what are conservatives to do when they look around and find their society increasingly unlovable?

Scruton was well aware of this problem, which explains why he so often dealt in elegy, producing moving testaments to what we have lost as a civilisation. Sometimes it seems as though the only alternative to elegiac lament is a thoroughgoing cynicism, well-described by Douglas Murray in a recent article for The Spectator. Distressed by the state of our institutions, it is difficult to avoid thinking, as Murray put it, that they “should effectively be torn down and salted over or subjected to some other revolutionary shake-up—at which point you have to wonder what exactly it is you are ‘conservative’ about.” Conservatives are fast running out of things to love. Meanwhile, there are no obvious remedies offered by conservatives other than to acknowledge the void with wistful cynicism.

Throughout history, idealists have killed many more people than cynics. But so too, what has cynicism ever really achieved? It comprises a mentality that rebels against the very idea of achievement. The problem for modern conservatives, then, is that of advancing a counter-revolution on behalf of tradition while not forgetting our customary caution about radical ideas and their destructive potential. We know about the perils of dramatic change, yet in today’s world we sense that the only alternative to political action is letting our traditions and settled way of life be destroyed.

Much can be learned from the American experience. Despite his infuriating, radioactive behaviour, Donald Trump taught us all a great deal about the need for fearlessness in the culture wars. Here was a man who never apologised for his conservative beliefs. Nor did he try to couch his love of the nation in language more agreeable to the liberal media, which he knew would twist his words in any case. Unfortunately, such fearlessness came conjoined with his obnoxious ego, which got in the way of the issues and sent droves of trembling Democrats to evict him in 2020.

There was a case for Trump in 2016, but he should play no significant role in the future of conservatism. He was much more like a battering ram than a great General: essential to breaching the castle gates, but a burden to carry around once the soldiers are inside. The Virginia gubernatorial race was an instructive example of what conservatives can achieve without him. Ordinary parents made their voices heard, pushing back against the invasion of Critical Race Theory and gender ideology into the state schooling system. Unable to distract voters with talk of the orange-skinned ogre, Democrats had nothing to say in the face of this civilised backlash. A typically blue state was painted red.

It is perhaps easier for American conservatives than their European counterparts to engage in direct action. They are not weighed down by the cynicism of a Europe still scarred by the previous century. Moreover, while conservatives in the U.S. have their own raging culture war, they are yet to lose their constitution, which has always served as a clarifying guide at times when the country falls victim to mad fashions. The constitution provides Americans with a set of principles, grounded in history and passed down by tradition, which they can fall back on if their institutions fail.

Despite attempts by EU bureaucrats to capture the idea of Europe in unreadable treaties, we conservatives on the continent cannot turn, like our American friends, to any single clear-cut source for inspiration. As a result, it is easier for European radicals to fiddle with our inheritance and to turn just about everything—from educational institutions to HR departments—into servants of progressive fads. That said, resisting the Left’s cultural hegemony is not futile. In Europe, we have not only a shared religious tradition, but also our unique national histories, customs and even mythologies. These are the things which should guide us in our long conservative counter-march back through the institutions of Western public life. It is by reinvigorating these old sources of wisdom and brandishing them in the fight for our culture that conservatism, paradoxically, can be given a radical edge.

But while fighting on the front foot may take us beyond our comfort zone, one thing that conservatives have always excelled at is community-building—a habit praised by Alexis de Tocqueville as “the spirit of association.” We intuit the truth of Aristotle’s claim that man is by nature a social animal. As human beings, we come to a condition of flourishing not in isolation, but through membership of families, villages, and still larger forms of community. So, besides recognising that our institutions have been dragged into a culture war, conservatives must also rediscover the art of building associations of our own—which, apart from anything else, comes more naturally to us.

Many such initiatives have emerged lately, including Toby Young’s Free Speech Union, Hungary’s Mathias Corvinus Collegium, and indeed the Roger Scruton Legacy Foundation (which recently held its first annual lecture series). The newly founded University of Austin—committed to the pursuit of truth wherever it may lead, as opposed to advancing the cause of social justice – is the latest such venture. Building more of these institutions is a necessary duty alongside fighting to reclaim old ones. New places can offer refuge to individuals who have been cancelled for falling foul of woke dogma.

Scruton used to say that the greatest ever conservative politician was Lord Salisbury, who achieved nothing of note while Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and “whose greatness consists precisely in the fact that nobody knows anything about him.” Salisbury’s famous mantra, “delay is life”, reflected his anxiety about political activism in a world of Victorian verities. But in a Europe of corrupted institutions—entities estranged from any sense of their proper purpose—adopting Salisbury’s approach today would all but guarantee failure. Being a conservative no longer means preferring “the familiar to the unknown”, as the philosopher Michael Oakeshott put it. Today we conservatives find ourselves in pursuit of the unfamiliar, seeking refuge from—as opposed to security in—the world as we really find it.

It is unusual for conservatives to be the rebels outside the citadel. The situation demands a radical cast of mind and great imagination in the fight to recapture our culture and institutions. Conservatives—at least those of us beyond Eastern Europe—have no recent experience of living under such political and social conditions. We ought not, however, to imitate the Left’s obsession with grand, utopian projects for human betterment. Original sin is a fact of life.

Western institutions are now battlegrounds. The key to fighting a radical fight while remaining conservatives is to avoid abstract ideals of the kind championed by left-wing intellectuals. Instead, we should make it clear that our love is not for a theory, but for an actual concrete inheritance which we seek to revive and defend, or risk losing altogether. Our shared culture, our legal traditions, our artistic canon, our religion, the nation state, the studia humanitatis, civil liberty, and the family—these are the real achievements that give conservatism its solid grounding, even when conservatives are forced to behave like radicals.

Finally, conservatives should develop further their budding talent for building new institutions. These should be designed to rival the old places of business, learning and culture that are being overtaken by left-wing orthodoxy. It is worth reflecting that Aristotle’s word for ‘association,’ koinōnia (κοινωνία), meant more than living within a community for the mere enjoyment of its benefits. In Ancient Greek, koinōnia more fully corresponds to the idea of a ‘shared undertaking’—a communal project—of public life with a clear moral purpose. Whether we are launching an attack or creating new little platoons, this sense of shared purpose must inform everything conservatives do in the ongoing culture wars. In our case, that purpose is to pass down the Christian values and secular achievements that our children deserve to inherit. 

We conservatives should embrace the paradox of being radical on behalf of conservatism. Apart from anything else, it means adding the thrill of transgression to the importance of fighting for what we love.

Harrison Pitt is a writer and journalist based in the UK. He has been published in The Spectator, Quillette, Spiked-Online, Areo Magazine, and others.

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