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Semantic quibbles #3: Conservatism

Here's a pretty old post from the blog archives of Geekery Today; it was written about 16 years ago, in 2008, on the World Wide Web.

Here’s Mike Tennant at LewRockwell.com Blog, quasi-approvingly quoting Jacob Heilbrunn’s summary of Bill Buckley:

Jacob Heilbrunn writes: Buckley wasn’t a radical conservative. He didn’t believe in trying to destroy the Eastern Establishment; instead, he wanted to reform it. Therein lies the entire problem.

Hold up. I’m lost.

In what possible sense of the word conservative is it a genuine conservative’s goal either to smash or to reform the ancien régime?

Maybe this political debate is really about something other than what Tennant, or Heilbrunn, or for that matter Buckley, thinks it is about.

Further reading:

4 replies to Semantic quibbles #3: Conservatism Use a feed to Follow replies to this article · TrackBack URI

  1. Araglin


    I think that one might reasonably count as a “conservative” (and even a radical one) if one sought to conserve that which is good about what-is (or what is old and of long-standing), while at that same time realizing that much (if not most) of what-is (or what is old and of long-standing) is not only not good, but actually works in favor of the destruction of those same inherited goods which ones hopes to conserve?

    Let me provide an historical example to illustrate this point and to try to show that this usage of the term “conservative” ought not to be thought completely ridiculous:

    Several quite prominent continental conservatives (Bonald and de Maistre) believed that the French Revolution had largely been the result of the decadence of the aristocracy and their consequent failure to discharge their obligation to use their various privileges in service of the common good, instead of chasing after the latest Parisian fashion or indulging in ever-more lavish consumption. Therefore, these thinkers might have had very good “conservative” reasons for favoring the profound reformation of the pre-1789 nobility (and even the destruction of the more-centralized, post-Louis-IV power of the French Crown). Why? Because, had this reformation taken place, many of the actually good things about pre-1789 France might have survived.

    Cheers, Araglin

  2. Rad Geek


    That’s a fair enough point. It speaks in favor of Buckley’s bona fides as a conservative, but not in favor of Tennant’s alternative of a so-called conservative setting out to destroy the established elite (!). I actually didn’t mean to suggest that Buckley isn’t a conservative, in any case, but rather to take issue with the attempt to portray his (genuine) conservatism as an effort to reform the American Establishment.

    Perhaps you’re right that there is a meaning of reform on which conservatives might be out to reform the established ruling class in their own society, in order to conserve some other aspect of tradition. But I’m inclined to say that the word reform already biases the issue in a liberal direction. What Buckley, and Bonald and de Maistre as well, proposed was not so much forward-looking reform, in the name of abstract or external standards of justice; it would be better described as backward-looking restoration of (what they conceived of as) the traditional order.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that one can be a radical conservative at all, because the term radical conservative is actually a contradiction in terms. One can be an extreme or hard-line or uncompromising conservative, but not a radical one; to be radical is to endorse an approach to understanding and acting within society that conservatism was invented to reject.

  3. Dain Fitzgerald

    I tend to equate “radical” with being anti-status quo, anti-establishment. The substance of ones disagreement can be criticized on its own terms. There is both good and bad radicalism.

    To claim that one is “conservative” while simultaneously being anti-status quo is to give a revolutionary or “progressive” quailty to the establishment. That seems odd.

  4. Rad Geek


    Well, when I say that I think radical conservative is a contradiction in terms, it’s for somewhat different reasons. As Chris Sciabarra never tires of teaching us, the term radical derives from radix, root; a radical was originally someone whose analysis or action supposedly went to the root of social phenomena, and someone who was radicalized was someone whose focus and action were driven from the superficial elements of the situation to its roots. Hence Marxism and anarchism are considered radical doctrines because each of them makes a different proposition about the root causes of social discord, and about the best way to enact a fundamental change. Similarly, radical feminism (as opposed to liberal feminism) is radical in the sense that it sees patriarchy as a fundamental organizing principle of our actually-existing society, which to be combated would require profound, even revolutionary changes in every aspect of life and culture; whereas liberal feminism sees patriarchy as more of a surface element, such that sex discrimination or sexist prejudice can be successfully excised from institutions like marriage, childrearing, sexuality, schooling, the military, the welfare state, etc. while leaving those institutions substantially intact.

    I’m perfectly willing to grant that Marxism (for example) is a radical doctrine, so I’d agree with you that there are good and bad forms of radicalism. But I also think that there can be such a thing as a radical defender of the status quo — if their defense of existing authority and power is based not on tradition, but rather on the basis that the existing order instantiates some deep universal principle about the proper ordering and functioning of society. Some versions of the Divine Right theory of absolute monarchy would be one example. So would the form of radical authoritarianism endorsed by certain American pro-slavery writers, such as George Fitzhugh. I’d say that these political views count as a radical form of Rightism, but not as a radical form of conservatism (or any form of conservatism at all).

    My reasons for saying that radical conservative is a contradiction in terms is that conservative thought, such as it is, was largely created specifically in order to ground anti-radical politics (mainly in reaction to the French Revolution and sympathetic radical movements elsewhere in Europe and America). The idea for folks like Burke (and later for Russell Kirk, Bill Buckley, et al.) was to argue that the standpoint that radicalism required — a standpoint from which all of society could be understood in terms of, and held up to judgment on the basis of, abstract and universal principles that were not contingent on any particular tradition or institutionalized form of life — was epistemically illusory, and practically destructive. So a radical conservative is like an atheist Catholic or a moderate Kierkegaardian; to really live up to what the noun means, you have to cut yourself off from the standpoint towards your own views that the adjective suggests.

    I think that modern so-called conservatives tend to combine substantial elements of real conservatism with substantial elements of anti-conservatism. (I don’t mean either of those terms polemically; sometimes their anti-conservative positions are the good part of their views, and sometimes they are a really rotten part of their views.) To the extent that they are genuinely and deeply opposed to the established orders of power in the social and cultural elite, they’re not acting as conservatives, but rather as something else.

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