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Excerpt from
The Conservative Bookshelf
A Book by Chilton Williamson, Jr.


Introduction

What is conservatism?

I would say: Conservatism, rightly understood, is man's willingness to discern for himself, and to accept from God, a fundamental, practical, just, human, and unchangeable plan for man-and to stick with it. Many necessarily will dissent from this definition; and it is perhaps tautological, as well as disingenuous, to suggest that genuine conservatives must concur. True, the conservative tradition as represented in this book is one man's attempt at a coherent vision of what he considers to be a very great and noble thing. It is untrue, however, that it is only one man's, since he has had company aplenty throughout the ages, while continuing to claim many brothers and comrades today--at the onset of the twenty-first century when it is easy for such people to conclude that the world, not as we know it only but as it was meant to be, is coming apart.

Clearly, therefore, the paramount difficulty in bringing together a conservative bookshelf (or library, for that matter) is that, among those people who call themselves conservatives, there is substantial disagreement as to what, exactly, the conservative tradition amounts to; and even what "conservatism" actually is. This is because conservatism, like any other large historical thing, is not a linear phenomenon but a divergent one, consisting of numerous branches or subsets often in contradiction of each other. The primary distinction within the conservative tradition, almost by definition, is the most hoary one as well. It amounts to the difference between a conservatism founded uncompromisingly on eternal principles and the conservatism that appeals to historical context and the status quo, prudence, and pragmatism. The term "rightist" commonly designates conservatives of the first division, while "conservative" denotes those belonging to the second. Thus, a "conservative" seeks to conserve what exists in the present, while a "rightist" is prepared to dismantle contemporary institutions in order to replace them with ancient ones resurrected from the past-monarchism, say, or the feudal system. In the culture of the modern West, rightists are always the "extremists" (for example, Pat Buchanan), marginalized in public debate and practical politics alike in favor of "conservatives" who have so far discarded absolute principles while emphasizing pragmatist ones as to have become nearly indistinguishable from the relativistic liberals they claim to oppose. The Republican Party in the United States, the Tories in Britain, the Christian Democratic Party in Germany, and the Christian Democrats in France: Are all exponents of a "practical" conservatism which differs from liberalism less in ideology than in schedule, always keeping a regular two or three paces behind the "opposition" vanguard.

Below the main categories of (A) Right and (B) Conservative, we may set subcategories to the two headings. To the A column should be added the Monarchists, the Catholic Rightists, the Distributists, the Agrarians, and the Paleoconservatives; under B we may place the Libertarian Conservatives, the Classical Liberals, the Free Traders, the Nationalists, and the Neoconservatives. (Readers will become familiar with the various types or factions in the following text of this book.) Though certain of these groups have at times made alliance with one another politically, and borrowed from each other intellectually, in many respects they have little in common, besides their opposition to the common foes of Communism, Socialism, and Corporate Liberalism they (unequally) abhor. Environmentalism--a modern radical-liberal movement descended from Conservationism and Preservationism--has adherents on the Right (though not many among mainstream conservatives), which perceives a connection with both Agrarian conservatism and the rugged individualism of the Old Believer ( or "Don't Tread On Me" American) tradition. In all this, it is, indeed, difficult at times to discover anything like a coherent "conservative" tradition at all, but only a confused cacophony of opposing voices.

Yet, in the United States and in other Western societies, the meaning of conservatism is anything but an academic subject. Rather, it has become the billion-dollar question in which a great many people and institutions hold vested interests of a pecuniary as well as a career nature. And no wonder; since whoever defines conservatism defines liberalism as well, thus fixing the agenda for the dominant liberal program. If the conservative tradition and the movements claiming to represent it were better defined (also more honest in stating their beliefs and intentions), the dispute among the various claimants-Republican, neoconservative, paleoconservative--would scarcely have the intensity it in fact possesses. The reason, of course, is that a great deal less would hang upon the conclusion of their argument. As it is, mainstream conservatism in the historic sense of the term has been almost entirely renovated and updated over the last century and today is in process of being hoisted inboard by the new postmodern progressivism. (Samuel Francis calls it "progressive conservatism.") For reasons that are not far to seek, both the renovation of conservativism and its appropriation by neoliberalism (that is, neoconservativism) are far easier accomplished if the conservative tradition has first been redefined, re-explained, and reintroduced in terms acceptable to the political, economic, and ideological establishment.

High-powered, high-pressured modern society has largely succeeded in reducing conservatism from a broadly informed religious, intellectual, moral, and aesthetic tradition to a narrow and shallow party politics that often amounts to nothing more than a party line. The Republican Party is the present embodiment of this politics in the United States; yet it has not always been so. True, the GOP, in Lincoln's War Between the States, destroyed the original federal republic created by the Founders; sold the newly created nation-state out to exploitive capitalism as represented by Johnson's Reconstructionists and to Grant's robber barons and the industrialists of the Gilded Age; succumbed to imperial temptation in McKinley's Spanish-American War; and in 1917 collaborated with the Wilson Democrats on the Progressive project of forming tangling alliances by concurring in an internationalist agendum to "make the world safe for democracy." The Republicans ineffectively and timorously opposed the New Deal in the Thirties and the Fair Deal after World War II; in the Fifties, the Eisenhower wing of the party permitted its leaders to accede to a new internationalist program justified by its advocates as necessary to national security in the Cold War. Unless we choose to equate conservatism with capitalism and imperialism, it is hard to make a case for the Republican Party being at any time in its history the party of conservatism. Yet, for nearly five generations, it displayed many conservative impulses (including what today is demonized as isolationism) while taking on the coloration of much that was indeed conservative in America. The GOP, for one thing, was the party of Main Street, the party of the Midwest and much of the West, the party of the American heartland and small-town America that truly represented a conservative culture--though possibly not conservative in a sense that any sophisticated European observer would have recognized. It was, as we say today, culturally conservative; to a limited extent and by comparison with the multicultural Democratic Party, it still is. Culturally and politically speaking, the GOP at its best was represented by Robert A. Taft-"Mr. Republican," the Senator from Ohio, whose commitment to limited government as delineated by the Constitution and the anti-internationalist vision of the Founders made him a lower-case republican as well as a party stalwart; also the greatest congressional spokesman in his time for the conservative political tradition. But Taft, who should have received the presidential nomination instead of Eisenhower, died in 1953, and the liberal internationalist wing of his party moved to the fore. Yet the Republican seachange occurred not in the 1950s but three decades later, as the direct result of an earlier transmutation in the conservative intellectual movement that began in the late 1960s: the rise of neoconservatism.

The radicalism called the New Left that defined and dominated the 60s was intolerable not only to conservatives; it was too much for a certain kind of liberal as well. Or perhaps I should say "kinds," since the dissenting liberals in this period represented a wide background spectrum, including as they did former Communists, socialists, Old Leftists, New Dealers, left-liberals, and liberals of the garden variety. These were people who had abandoned, largely or entirely, doctrinaire socialism--without, however, having wholly sloughed off their revolutionary instincts and statist assumptions, and certainly without having replaced them with Rightist or tradionally conservative ones. They called themselves, and were soon called by everyone else, the Neoconservatives, though the term Neo-liberals would have suited them just as well.

In the main, they were (and they are) Northeastern academics, opinion journalists, and policy experts associated with various think-tanks and similar institutes; well-regarded scholars and writers well-placed to effect the fusion of responsible liberalism with conservatism to create what they regard as an updated and enlightened version of the traditional variety that would in time (as soon as possible, in fact) crowd out the old conservatism from the public square. How they accomplished this feat is too long and involved a story to be recounted here. The fact is that they did it, in a mere decade and a half and right on schedule for the inauguration of Ronald Reagan as President of the United States. Neoconservative scholars, "experts," and operatives were strongly represented in the two Reagan administrations and in foreign policy posts especially, where they found themselves positioned to develop and promote their program for "national greatness conservatism." This, to neoconservatives, amounted to an imperial prescription for extending, by force if necessary, American political, economic, and cultural institutions to every country and culture in the world, in the name of freedom and "global democracy." In this enterprise of national greatness, the Neoconservatives' greatest triumph to date has been George W. Bush's Iraq War, predicted by Richard Perle (one of their leading strategists, formerly of the Defense Department) to be a "cakewalk." (The "neoconservative cabal" and its role in promoting a dishonestly-sold war is today a major media story that need not be emphasized here.)

Foreign adventurism, internationalist ambitions, and global crusades have never been conservative enthusiasms, with American conservatives especially. Nor has the old conservatism ever made its peace with big government, the replacement of federalism by centralism, the welfare state, and consumer capitalism. Neo-conservatives, by contrast, accept-in fact, they embrace and seek to extend-all of these things, while adding a fervid commitment to multiculturalism and mass immigration from the Third World. No less a figure that Irving Kristol, the founding father of Neoconservatism, has stated explicitly that he and his comrades set out to replace the old individualistic, federalistic, free-enterprise, and largely WASP conservatism with something better suited to the realties of a modern industrial welfare state and an increasingly multicultural society. Neoconservatives are distinguished from traditional conservatives not least by their determination to deny notions of peculiar national and cultural identities, which they seek to replace with the fantastical one of the First Universal Nation. Most importantly, Neoconservatives have relentlessly promoted the secularization of government and of society to an extent that is wholly at odds with the explicitly Christian character of the Western tradition. (To our post-Christian age, this may seem a hard saying. Nevertheless, as Hilaire Belloc pointed out time and time again, it is simply an historical fact.) As, indeed, is the entire agendum of this shallow, arrogant, aggressive, and materialistic thing called Neoconservatism; of which the best that can be said is that (as a percipient friend has remarked) it amounts to seven leaders and no followers.

Still, the triumph (however temporary) of neo-conservatism is plain to see in the virtually total control the movement exercises over the Republican Party, the "conservative" press, and "conservative" discourse generally. The holdouts are pretty well confined to the "Paleoconservatives," who persist in keeping the old conservative flame ( Christian faith, national sovereignty and cultural identity, federalism, republicanism, restraint of capitalism, community, agrarianism, and homocentric environmentalism) alight; and the conservative libertarians, who combine an inexhaustible enthusiasm for unfettered capitalist activity with respect for religion, traditional culture, national sovereignty, republican government, and anti-imperialism. But the paleo-conservatives are few in number and in resources by comparison with the neoconservative majority; the conservative libertarians disadvantaged by their opposition to foreign adventurism and the New World Order, as well as by their mystical devotion to "free trade," which-as they never tire of pointing out to the embarrassment of almost everyone else-is not the heavily compromised version that goes by the same name today.

In compiling a bookshelf of fifty titles, I have attempted to select titles representing, in the main, the traditional conservative canon. Necessarily, therefore, I have omitted such well-known neoconservative authors as Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter, Edward Banfield, George Gilder, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Nathan Glazer, James Q. Wilson, Irving Kristol, and Jean-François Revel (to name a few names in a long list of prominent writers) for the reason that, though they certainly hold certain ideas and beliefs in common with the old conservatives, they are not really of the breed. On the other hand, I have sneaked in a writer here and there to whom it would come as news that he in any way represented the conservative tradition: e.g. Edmund Wilson, the literary critic and historian, and Edward Abbey, the environmentalist author. My sole defense here is that these Old Believers shared more of the conservative tradition and outlook on life and the world than either one of them cared to recognize or admit. Individualists of a uniquely American type, they represented much of what was best in the Old American (the Old Believer) tradition. With this book, I have attempted to present a vision of conservatism having little or nothing to do with the caricature version signified by fat men in top hats and generals with swords that has seemed indelibly stamped on the popular mind since 1789. The conservative tradition has never been an apology for ignorance, superstitition, despotism, war, power, wealth, or privilege: Rather it been their scourge, their mortal enemy. Nor is the conservative tradition a narrow and restricted one; instead, it is as broad and varied as life, having all of life and of human experience in it though rooted in a specific culture, that is Western culture. The reason for this seeming paradox is that Western culture has always been an eclectic affair created by bold borrowers-world ransackers in a constructive sense having nothing to do with imperialist exploitation and pillage--and creative synthesizers into the bargain. In this sense, Western culture may be understood as the West's giving-back to the cultures it colonized, prosyletized, and civilized, at whatever (admittedly often considerable) cost to themselves. Certainly the fact of millions of formerly colonized peoples perennially seeking to migrate to the nations of the West suggests that they themselves preceive history that way.

All this by way of saying that what follows is an eclectic, maybe even an eccentric, compendium. Because eclectic and eccentric are just what the tradition of the West is. Conservatism, properly understood, is man's willingness to discern or accept a fundamental and unchangeable plan for man--and stick with it. As such, it amounts to nothing less than the Western tradition at its deepest, and its best.

# # #

Anyone with the temerity to select, from the vast literary canon from which the conservative and political intellectual movements of our time have been distilled, a list of fifty essential works is under a moral obligation to defend himself against the charge of presumption. Fifty books! From a tradition spanning three millenia and who knows how many thousands of volumes! As a book review editor and all-too-frequent reviewer myself, I had no trouble imagining the asperity with which reviewers were likely to attack so imprudent an exercise. Every conscientious writer is in the business of putting himself on the line daily, but no one is required to step up to the literary equivalent of Maginot. Not only had Citadel Press limited me to fifty books, it had requested me to rank those books in order of intellectual genius and historical influence!

I had a model before me in the form of Robert Wooster's The Civil War Bookshelf, a previous volume in Citadel Press's Bookshelf series. A learned, judicious, and beautifully written volume, Professor Wooster's book afforded me scant help nevertheless in designing the one I had been invited to write. The reason was simple. Wooster's job had been to select from a bibliography-a body of mainly academic work on a particular historical event. I faced the task of choosing from an intellectual tradition-two entirely different things. While it is, inherently, an arbitrary decision to declare any particular volume in a body of academic work on a given topic "Number One" or "Number Fifty" in general importance, numerical designation becomes almost an absurdity when compiling a list of books that are not about history but amount, actually, to history itself.

My solution to the problem has been to devise a number of categories comprising the conservative canon; to rank the categories among themselves; and, finally, to order the various individual titles within those categories. The categorical ranking principle indicated that I should begin with the comprehensive and transcendental (theology) and conclude with the mundane (contemporary public affairs), having descended through the political, social, economic, and aesthetic levels of Western discourse. Hence, I have put the Bible at the head of the first category, on the indisputable ground that (with the obvious exception of the classical tradition) all of Western thought comes from it. The Bible is followed by the second, third, and forth most significant titles within the capital category, after which I step down to the second category, comprising works on government and politics and headed by Cicero's The Republic, which immediately precedes Edmund Burke's classic statement of conservative political thought, Reflections on the Revolution in France. Because this organizational plan will likely strike some readers as quixotic, I should point out that it adheres in some sense to the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, borrowed and adapted by generations of conservative thinkers from the Church; also that it seems to me to reflect the medieval concept of the Great Chain of Being, among the most venerable and beautiful conservative concepts of all time.

Unlike Marxism or even liberalism, conservatism is both a way of life and of thinking about life, what the American novelist and story writer Flannery O'Connor called a "habit of being"--not a plan, program, or even a programmatic way of thought. For this reason, and because conservatism is finally a cultural phenomenon and all culture is by definition conservative, I did not hesitate to include fiction, narrative nonfiction, and poetry in my version of the conservative canon; also one work of narrative non-fiction (Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire), plus a volume of letters (Miss O'Connor's) and an autobiography, Whittaker Chambers' Witness--quite possibly the most explosive political memoir, after Mein Kampf, of the twentieth century. A novelist and story writer myself, I have been consistently tempted to include more of what is fatuously called "creative writing," but resisted the temptation. Though some of the greatest conservative writers have been novelists, poets, and playwrights, the fact remains that, as with all great artists, their message is their medium, not an articulated statement. Moreover, the present time is not only a narrowly politicized age, it is one from which conservative political, social, and economic ideas have largely been excluded, owing to liberalism's control of the terms of debate. In a time of pills and potions, soundbites and slogans, there is an enormous need for explicit encapsulated truths and insights, intellectual concepts taken neat or on-the-rocks. (When you are allowed just fifty of them to swallow, especially.)

I should add that, from the start, I took for granted the assumption that conservatism means Western conservatism, not the equivalent traditions of China, India, Byzantium, and so forth. Our subject here is restricted to Western Europe and America-Britain, France, Germany, Spain, and the United States particularly. It would be possible, I imagine, to apply the same principles to a compendium of world conservatism, if such a thing could be identified, but possibility is not the same thing as practicability. Or desirability. One way or another, the subject lies beyond the scope of this volume.

Chilton Williamson, Jr.
Laramie, Wyoming
20 February 2004

 

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