Review

A Revival of Conservative Ideas
in Europe?

In 2007, a valuable book on conservative ideas was published in Germany: Johann Baptist Müller’s Konservatismus—Konturen einer Ordnungsvorstellung (Conservatism: Outlines of an Idea of Order). This was Band (volume) 146 in the series Beiträge zur Politischen Wissenschaft, published in Berlin by Duncker & Humblot. In it, the author deals mainly with American, British, French, and German conservatives. The basic tenor of the book is that conservatism is as legitimate an ideology as European liberalism and socialism.

In order to legitimate conservatism’s place among the great European doctrines, this valuable volume asks and answers the question whether there really is a group of ideas and thinkers that can in good faith be called ‘conservative.’ Can, for instance, the works of Nobel prize winner F.A. von Hayek, with his strong market orientation, be counted as a conservative? After all, Hayek once famously wrote that he was not a conservative. What are the qualifications for including a writer in the conservative camp?

In his first chapter, Müller investigates the question of how old conservatism is. In the view of F.J.C. Hearnshaw, he notes, it originated already in paradise: “Conservatism in the sense of a spirit opposed to radicalism … can be traced right back to the Garden of Eden itself…. Adam … was the person who represented the conservative qualities of contentment and stability.” Eve was the radical figure of innovation. Raymond English, in turn, places the origins of conservatism in classical antiquity: “The core of political thought is old and complex; formed of strands which lead back unbroken through … St. Thomas Aquinas, Cicero, and Aristotle …. Conservatism is able to turn to these classic sources because it rejects the notion that the central elements of the human predicament change with political and economic revolutions.” Interestingly, another prominent conservative [some would say, classical liberal] thinker, Kenneth Minogue, also counts the first conservative thinkers to be Plato, Aristotle, and St. Thomas Aquinas. In the modern age, of course, authors usually describe conservatism as a reaction against the ideas of the French Revolution of 1789.

In a second chapter titled “Die Geschichte der Moderne in konservativer Perspektiv,” Müller treats modernity from a conservative perspective. He focuses on French conservative critics of the Revolution like Charles Maurras. Joseph de Maistre is, of course, one of the main figures of French conservatism. A believer in God as the origin of legitimate power, Maistre believed that institutions and conditions which had stood the test of time had a divine sanction. He then discusses the German Conservative Revolution’s main figures in the Weimar Republic. They are described as being “enemies of reform.” Although Müller does a fine job discussing German conservatives, Armin Mohler’s Die konservative Revolution in Deutschland, 1918–1932: Ein Handbuch, published in 1999, is still the best work by far on this conservative movement.

Müller then moves to Edmund Burke, whose conservatism is described as moderate, seeking slow progress based on tradition. Burke’s influence on German conservatism was extensive and is recognized as such by Müller. What is lacking in this book is a presentation of the later Burke—the man who often fought lonely battles against Jacobinism. In his “Letter to a Member of the National Assembly,” the condemnation of the Revolution went beyond Burke’s Reflections. In his “Thoughts on French Affairs” of December 1791, he noted that something had to be done to prevent the conquest of Europe by fanaticism. When King Louis XVI was executed by the Jacobins in 1793, this fulfilled Burke’s predictions of the Jacobin’s limitless ferocity.

The concluding condemnation of the Revolution can be found in this great thinker and orator’s “Letters on a Regicide Peace” of 1797. The Revolution had ravaged Europe. It had devoured many of its own children. Should Britain come to terms with murderers and brigands? In its spirit, and for its objects, it was a civil war. It was a war between the partisans of the ancient civil, moral, and political order of Europe against a sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists who meant to change everything. Burke and his ilk did succeed in defending European civilization, although only long after his death (and indirectly) when Napoleon was finally was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. Russell Kirk, in his fine one-volume biography, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (1967) noted that communism is the counterpart, still more terrible, of the French Revolution. The tyranny of Moscow (which ended in 1991)—and, today, even of Communist China—are the full realization of Burke’s prophecies.

In one particularly informative chapter, Müller discusses the relation between conservatism and Christianity. A fine description of the risks of conservatism without Christian doctrine can be found in Adam Röder: “Der Konservatismus ohne das Christentum läuft Gefahr, zu einer Variante des aufgeklärten Absolutismus zu entarten oder zur Oligarchie, in der einzelne Schichte oder Geschlechter wahllos herrschen.1

Before closing, a few additional words should be said about a possible European conservative revival. This is related to how we view modern free enterprise, what we think of the New Deal in the U.S., and certain observations of Edmund Burke concerning state power.

Although some have attempted to advance criticism of capitalism within American and European conservatism, free enterprise is the major economic basis of modern conservative thought. Despite this fact, conservative intellectuals have not always found it easy to obtain commercial support for cultural projects. Frustration during the Cold War was also widespread among conservatives when businessmen proved eager to deal commercially with communist countries, even when it harmed Western policies and competition. Many positive comments from conservatives could, however, be found for entrepreneurs who acted like virtuous statesman in business and politics.

Some American conservatives defend the New Deal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In the words of Peter Viereck: “The Burkean conservative today, cherishes New Deal reforms in economics … one of the finest achievements of the New Deal era … in that it achieved many humanitarian ideals of the so-called left without the murderous police-state practices of the far left.” In general, however, it seems that conservatives in Europe are more prepared to accept welfare systems supported by taxes than is the case in America.

Nevertheless, we must keep Burke’s prophetic words in mind as we discuss the future of the expansive European states. He wrote that “[t]he people have no interest in disorder.” His moderate view of the state is one that most Western conservatives can agree on. Most important are his criticisms of the misuse of power by the absolutists and the French revolutionaries.

On the latter Burke wrote:

“Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all. Everything is referred to the production of force: afterwards, everything is trusted to the use of it. It is military in its principle, in its maxims, in its spirit, and in all its movements. The state has dominion and conquest for its sole objects, dominion over minds by proselytism, over bodies by arms.”

Lastly, the American macro-historian Samuel P. Huntington has called for both conservatives and liberals to defend the liberal state: “The greatest need is not so much the creation of more liberal institutions as the successful defense of those which already exist.” In an interesting final chapter, Müller asks if there is a future for conservatism. Indeed, conservatives have made a number of mistakes since the Second World War. Russell Kirk has pointed out one important aspect regarding this. Conservatives have, with haste and without honor, left the battlefield of ideas and culture. The enemy has the day. The radicals are the victors—at least in Europe—while there has been a robust conservative revival in America.

Muller’s last exhortation to conservatives in the book is that they have to present as much theoretical work as European liberals and socialists. He reminds conservatives of their duty. And, for this purpose, this book is a valuable vademecum for all European conservatives—and should be seen as a call to action for the revival of European conservative thinking in the public arena.

Bertil Häggman is the managing director of the Center for Research on Geopolitics in Sweden. In 1966 he founded the Committee for a Free Asia and in 1971, along with Claes Ryn, he co-founded the think-tank Konservativt idéforum. He is the author of many books, including Neoconservatism in the United States (with Professor Claes G. Ryn) and Freedom Fighters: Resistance in Communist Territory, which celebrates the struggle of the anti-communist guerrilla movement Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s.

This review appeared in the June 2008 edition of The European Conservative, Number 1: 3-4.

Endnotes

  1. 1

    In English: “Conservatism without Christianity runs the risk of degenerating into a variant of enlightened absolutism, or into an oligarchy in which individual strata or genders rule indiscriminately.”

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