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.