Review

Thinkers Against Time

"Der grosse Wiener Friedens Congres zur Wiederherstellung von Freiheit und Recht in Europa" (1814), a 26 x 33 cm copperplate engraving published by Anton Tessaro.

Photo: Courtesy of the Wien Museum's Online Collection.

It is safe to say that the publishing house Ares, based in Graz, Austria, is among a rare few dedicated to the publishing of conservative literature. In their catalogue, we can find re-issues of classical conservative texts (such as Spengler’s The Hour of Decision) but also books by prominent post-war conservative authors, including Caspar von Schrenck-Notzing, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner, Hans-Dietrich Sander, or Friedrich Romig. 

Additionally, the publisher has released two German-language collections featuring profiles of famous conservatives: Conservative Profiles: Ideas and Praxis in Politics Between FM Radetzky, Karl Kraus, and Alois Mock, edited by Ulrich Zellenberg, and Conservatism in Austria: Currents, Ideas, Persons, and Associations from the Beginning to the Present, co-edited by Ulrich Zellenberg and Robert Rill. Both volumes primarily examine conservatism in Austria, analysing the ideas of major Austrian conservative thinkers, as well as the policies of conservative parties, right-wing associations, and the House of Habsburg. 

It is in these footsteps that the 2013 volume, Against the Crisis of the Time: Portraits of Conservative Thinkers (Gegen die Krise der Zeit: Konservative Denker im Portrait), edited by Daniel Führing, appeared. However, this collection is different from its predecessors in several ways. First, it is no longer only about Austrian conservatives, or even solely about European authors. Rather, it takes into account British, Russian, and Latin American traditions of conservatism. Thus, we find in it essays on Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira, Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Ivan Ilyin, Russell Kirk, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Michael Oakeshott, and Julius Evola. 

Among the Austrians profiled are Johannes Messner, Hans Sedlmayr, Gerd-Klaus Kaltenbrunner, and Othmar Spann in separate essays, while Eric Voegelin’s thought is considered together with Leo Strauss’ in the same chapter. If we add to this various essays on Arnold Gehlen, Ernst Jünger, Günther Maschke, Arthur Moeller van den Bruck, Edgar Julius Jung, Günther Rohrmoser, Wilhelm Röpke, Carl Schmitt, and Robert Spaemann, we realize that German-speaking conservatives are overwhelmingly featured. 

The second point that sets this collection apart from the previous collections of essays is its chronological scope. While the other two collections referred to the time from the “beginning” of conservatism in Austria ”to the present”—or from Radetzky to Mock—this volume embraces only 20th century conservatives, both pre- and post-war. 

A third difference concerns the selection of the authors featured in this new collection. While the previous two volumes included officers, artists, or clerics who often did not have much to do with politics directly, nor did they necessarily participate in any obvious way in the framing of conservative thought, in this volume we see people who, to varying degrees, are all distinct political thinkers.

The editor points out that in his selection of contributors, special attention was paid to their knowledge of a given subject or expertise in a specific area, as well as their sympathy for the topic. This, it was thought, would be better than having someone simply paraphrase another person’s ideas. In other words, this about is basically about conservatives written by conservatives. Hence, the authors—apart from the afore-mentioned Zellenberg—also include Christian Machek, Hanns Pichler, Till Kinzel, Harald Bergbauer, Michael Wladyka, Dirk Budde, Sebastian Maass, and others.

In his Introduction, Führing refers to the difficulties experienced in determining the nature of conservatism and defining the conservative position—and, in this context, he underscores the superficial spirit of our age which, with very few exceptions, prevails both in the academy and in the public. He argues that the present era is not only unfavourable for conservatives but that we are witnessing the intentional discrediting of the classical and Christian traditions, and the deliberate cultivation of a prejudice against conservatism. Yet he does not conceal his hope that this collection should bring about a rehabilitation of conservative thinking.

The term ‘conservatism’ is rather broadly defined in Führing’s Introduction. He has chosen a broad definition in order to include different representatives of the conservative worldview, while also accepting the historical tensions among some of the authors featured. Therefore, in this volume we can find seemingly diametrically opposed authors as Russell Kirk and Julius Evola, Michael Oakeshott and Ernst Jünger, Wilhelm Röpke and Ivan Ilyin.

The definition of conservatism assumes that this is a school of thought that emerged at the time of the French Revolution as a reaction to the rationalist, ahistorical, and anti-life philosophies of Enlightenment. For over 200 years now, conservatives have been fighting against the hubris of modern man and his growing detachment from reality. It is clear that the editor is more interested in a pro-active conservative approach that seeks to “create things that are worth preserving,” as Arthur Moeller van den Bruck put it, rather than a conservatism that merely advocates for the status quo or a return to the status quo ante—yearning for bygone times. 

Criticism that the modern age is out of touch with reality, in Führing’s opinion, implies commitments about the essence of man. In his definition of conservatism, the editor raises the anthropological question, stating that the conservative worldview regards man as a whole, without reducing him to one or other aspect. For conservatives, man is not only an embodied, social, and political being—even though he is such a being—but, ultimately, homo religiosus

A conservative anthropology views man as a being in community. In other words, man, with all his characteristics, can only be understood as part of a larger settlement, family, nation. In addition, conservative realism perceives man as an imperfect, deficient, and weak being that is prone towards evil. On this issue, conservatism has always stood in opposition to all egalitarian ideas about human social arrangements. 

Indeed, an important point of conservative anthropology is the belief in human inequality. In opposition to those who regard conservatism as an inert and unreflective stance that seeks to just keep things as they are, Führing deems conservatism inseparable from the perception of life as a struggle whose fruits may not necessarily be seen in this life. Again, from the point of view of a conservative anthropology, man is ultimately homo religiosus: the drama of human life is seen not as trivial but ordered towards the transcendent and things such as family, nation, and—in the final analysis—God.

In this way, Führing artfully overcomes the notion that preserving a given state of affairs, whatever its moral defects, is conservative; so, too, with the view that  conservatism implies a return to some romanticised past. Rather, by placing conservative anthropology in the foreground, Führing shows that it is possible to accept as ‘conservative’ an array of ‘visions of order’ framed against the same anthropological premises.

Given the book’s broad definition of conservatism, Führing notes that the authors included in this collection have not lost any of their relevance for our own day. Moreover, the authors he has chosen reveal to us the traditional foundations of a sound social order from a variety of perspectives. 

While this collection does not provide very detailed profiles of the thinkers included—since each essay hardly exceeds twenty pages—the reader who is familiar with conservative themes and personalities will hardly find here any new or unknown information. Then again, providing new information was not the intention of the editor, who has instead sought to provide us with a readable survey of 20th century conservatism in order to introduce us to a few neglected and forgotten thinkers—and, in the process, stimulate reflection and prompt further reading. In all these, he has succeeded.

Dušan Dostanić is a researcher at the Institute for Political Studies and a member of the editorial boards of Politička revija (Belgrade) and Matica Srpska Social Sciences Quarterly (Novi Sad).

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