Sunday, June 2, 2013

The meaning of conservatism

The word 'conservatism', like most abstract nouns of its kind, has a very fluid meaning. Even when used as a specifically political designation, its meaning is context-dependent and impossible to pin down. Nonetheless, it can be fascinating to observe the shifting coalitions and alliances which form around this particular concept.

Inevitably there is a tendency for self-described conservatives, or members of any ideological grouping in fact, to identify their own particular views with what they conceive to be the true tradition or the purest conception of the ideology in question.

Claes G. Ryn, who turns seventy this week, is such a one.

I came across the writings of this Swedish-born thinker only recently. Though deeply versed in – and committed to – European intellectual culture, Ryn teaches in America and has a strong and critical interest in the recent history of American conservatism.

This essay, for instance, is both a survey and a scathing critique of American conservatism. In it Ryn is particularly harsh on that strand of post-World War 2 conservative thought which culminated in the neoconservatism which so profoundly influenced the policies of the George W. Bush administration. He quite rightly identifies the neocons' lack of historical understanding as a major flaw in their thinking.

Libertarianism, another key strand in American conservative thought, is criticized on similar grounds.

It is to his credit that Ryn tries always to do justice to the historical perspective, rejecting an ahistorical, Platonistic view based on universal abstractions.

He particularly emphasizes the importance of morality, and also the importance of an imagination formed by cultural, intellectual and artistic traditions. Which, again, is fine and quite defensible.

But his attachment to European philosophy – and Hegel and Croce in particular – will put off more than a few Americans (and not just Americans!).

Crucially, his interest in these thinkers signals not just the elite intellectualism of the old world, but also a commitment to idealism and to the primacy of mind and spirit.

Though Ryn is critical of the often intellectually complacent and ostentatious appeals to religious belief on the part of American conservatives, he is himself clearly driven by what are essentially religious convictions.

And it's here that I must part company with him, as I am simply not convinced of the existence of transcendent truths or values – moral, intellectual or aesthetic.

I have written before about the anomalous nature of non-religious conservatism and, yet again, we see conservatism being defined in broadly religious terms.

But what do you do when you have just about all the basic conservative instincts or intuitions (I am in sympathy with much of what Ryn is saying) but just can't accept religion or philosophical idealism?

I can call myself a non-religious or secular conservative, of course. But the trouble is, most conservatives will not see me as being a real conservative – and I am just conservative enough to agree with them.


  1. "Conservative Tendency" has been included in the A Sunday Drive for this week. Be assured that I hope this helps to point even more new visitors in your direction.

  2. I am reading through your linked essay a second time . . . it's not the usual breezy reflections on the history of conservatism that one usually encounters.

    I cannot help but think that the lack of philosophical unity, its turn to practical politics, and the rise of the neoconservatives all went hand in hand.

    I think they needed to enter the political fray, but this accentuated those philosophical divisions.

    Many conservatives embraced the neoconservatives because of their usefulness in practical politics. Postwar conservatism often found itself dismissed as an ideology, or worst, a pathology. The neoconservative sociologists, economists, etc. were perceived as "driven by data." This may have helped somewhat in day to day political battles, but in the long run only added more philosophical or ideological confusion. IMHO.

  3. As to what Ryn calls that "embarrassing old saw" about "Those who can--do; those who can't--teach." Its gets worse. The new version concludes with "Those who can't teach--well, they teach teachers."

  4. Yes, Ryn's essay is no walk in the park. He articulates a clear and consistent position, but it's one I just can't go along with (because of the essentially religious assumptions).

    In some respects Ryn's argument could be seen as self-serving also.

    But he makes many points I agree with, and his analysis does, as you suggest, throw interesting light on the origins of the neoconservative movement.

    One interesting fact is that many of them started out as extreme leftists. (Christopher Hitchens remained a Marxist and an admirer of Lenin and Trotsky, and yet he sounded at times like a neocon.)

  5. Regarding your last observation, I did not know how to respond to this clip. On the one hand, mild response to Mayer had been moving from mild amusement to detestation. On the other hand, I never could muster any support of Bush's adventures in Iraq or even Afghanistan, at least after it transmogrified from killing bin Laden into nation building...

    1. Hitchens got a lot of things wrong but he also got a lot of things right. And he is damned impressive in that clip, isn't he?

  6. As to Ryn's concern about "the danger of morality being mistaken for the kind of merely sentimental benevolence for the world’s unfortunate," this sounds a bit more relevant for liberals. For many years they have been quick to embrace causes overseas without regard for how these causes impacted the national interest of the United States. And they have done so at home as well, without regard to whether assistance programs help or hinder in the long run. I have not seen that much from conservatives, at least not before the recent "Arab Spring."

    1. I really can't stand that self-congratulatory moralizing which Ryn talks about. As he says, it often masks more dubious motives.