But—I'm a Conservative!

"Our job is to prove right here in America that democracy means, not destructive wrangling, but effective cooperation in solving our spiritual and economic problems. Can this be too much to hope from American youth?"

'Men too often, in their revenge, set the example of doing away with those general laws to which all alike can look for salvation in adversity.'
—Thucydides, 426 B.C.

Why should any young man want to be a conservative, on a globe where so much needs changing? I can best answer in a roundabout way with a few facts about myself. I am twenty-three years of age, unemployed, short of cash. For six years I have studied at Harvard and at Christ Church, Oxford, as a Fellowship holder, getting my bachelor and graduate degrees in history and literature. At the same time, my work for magazines has given me some practical experience in that less rarefied atmosphere of American journalism. In both spheres I have watched the convention of revolt harden into a dogmatic ritual.

Revolt now has its hierarchy of saints, including such divergent apostles of Progress as the editors of the Nation and of the New Masses. It has its elaborate, formalized incantations, its holy slogans. Behind much of it today lies the smug convention that our only alternative to fascist terror is Marxism. Marxism means many things. I revolt against its 'revolt' primarily for its materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit. Economic values alone make life possible, but the moral, aesthetic, and intellectual values alone make it worth living.

The Hitler-Stalin pact and Russia's invasion of Finland have laid bare the incompetence of our 'fellow travelers' as analysts, prophets, and leaders. By Stalin's non-communist fellow travelers I specifically mean those liberals whose attitude was best summarized by the following manifesto in the Nation of August 26, 1939:—

Reactionaries ... have encouraged the fantastic falsehood ... that the fascist states and Soviet Russia equally menace the democratic way of life. Soviet and fascist policies are diametrically opposed. The Soviet Union continues as always to be a bulwark against war and aggression, and works unceasingly for a peaceful international order.

This manifesto had four hundred prominent signers. They were the 'Four Hundred' of liberalism's Social Register. Being men of integrity, many disillusioned signers should become ardent recruits for a saner movement to conserve civil liberties from the cornmunazi method of 'direct action.' Among those signers for whom dictator Stalin is suddenly no longer the Sir Gallahad of 'true' democracy (mighty handy word, 'true'!) are Vincent Sheean, Max Lerner, Frederick Schuman, Louis Fischer, and (just before his death) Heywood Broun. In the interest of all democratic readers, I sincerely petition the Nation to publish another poll of these four hundred influential writers to inquire how many still uphold that cocksure manifesto.

Last year the fellow travelers were still the bosses of Student Unions and the American Youth Congress. I was dismissed as an unenlightened reactionary for my 'fantastic' notion that the German and Russian state-socialisms are basically alike in economics and in ruthless methods. Similarly, the leftists were the 'respectable' people in the world of letters. They were the fashionable folk who 'counted'; and the fact cannot be disguised that it paid and still pays, in certain pressure groups, to be a 'persecuted' Marxist.

We are witnessing strange and terrible events. It is the deluge time, the time of the breaking of nations. How few at those swanky cocktail parties for Loyalist Spain foresaw that the OGPU's sacred Party Line might be what lost democracy to Hitler, Franco, Stalin! Today all those young disciples of revolt's fashionable Four Hundred must reexamine their premises from a fresh perspective. I write from the point of view of millions of ordinary young college graduates trying sincerely to answer two questions: What values are enduring enough to survive all these crashing panaceas? What means must we use to save these precious values?


With these two questions in mind, let me begin by asking: What do I mean by 'conservative'? Conservatism must include what Thomas Mann calls humanism: the conservation of our cultural, spiritual, and individualist heritage. Common sense is notoriously the oracle of conservatism. But, at its best, common sense means no mere unimaginative shrewdness. It means the common and universal sense of mankind, the common values basic to every civilized society and creed. These human values are the traffic lights which all (even 'mass movements') must obey in order that all may be free. The New Masses would dismiss this common-sense conservatism as bigoted and 'reactionary.' Very well, then, but against what am I reactionary?

Even during the height of Russia's pretensions to 'peace and democracy' I have consistently reacted against the self-styled liberalism of the fellow travelers. Today I would make no exception in favor of any of communism's rival versions, so long as communists, like the brilliant Mr. Granville Hicks, merely repudiate Stalin's foreign policy and fail to repudiate Lenin's formulae of class war and proletarian dictatorship.

Equally, I react against the self-styled Liberty Leaguers. The latter give us only the negative liberty to starve and be unemployed. They accept our American concept of democratic equality, but in the following negative sense: America's impartial Liberty League democracy forbids the Sixty Families equally with the California share-croppers to steal bread. It punishes the coupon-clipping millionaire as well as the unemployed mechanic for sleeping on a park bench or begging in the subway. It gives us the equal right and complete liberty to buy America's plentiful wheat crop - much of which is burnt because we lack the money to buy it. Let us frankly grant that Europe's dictators and revolutions remedy many of these evils. However, my conservatism includes my faith that America can and must remedy these evils within our constitutional framework of Law and civil liberties.

The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.

In America, we try to prove that 'It can't happen here' by citing the vast extent of our compulsory education. Truly, we are almost as well educated a people as the pre-Hitler Germans, and, like the Soviets, we are constantly increasing our educational institutes. 'What matters more, however, is that never was our system so inadequate as today in teaching discrimination and absolutes of conduct.

We teach a child to, read and are surprised at the enormous circulation of the Yellow Press and the Father Coughlins. We are bred as little evolutionary Progressives, but we don't discriminate in what direction we breathlessly rush 'forward.' The explanation is that we are no longer given the standards for discriminating. Fertile soil for freedom and for mutual tolerance is never in human nature to start with, but must be painstakingly ploughed over for centuries. The history of mass movements affords vastly more evidence for original sin than for any natural goodness of man. Education's job is austerely to restrict, not fulfill, the child's 'glorious self-expression.'

Freedom of thought we must never restrict in America. Conduct and action we can and must restrict. Instead of 'progressive education' our democratic school system must instill, from kindergarten on, the necessity of limiting all human conduct and instinct by objective Law. Only so can we learn, the decent rules of the game as an unbreakable habit. By 'Law' I do not mean all existing laws. All are not necessarily good. By 'Law' I mean the legal way as a way to whatever goals we may seek; I mean it as a way of living. This way is necessarily freedom's prerequisite. In this sense, Law must tread pitilessly upon individuals, nations, classes. It must trample with callous and sublime indifference upon their economic interests yes, even their economic interests- and their 'healthy instincts of the race.'

Soft-hearted liberals are too ready to say that a lawbreaker 'means well,' that his corruption is due to his social environment and bad companions; they talk too much about his honest fanaticism, his honest non-awareness of Law. Today such qualification leads to overemphasis of the more irrelevant side of the question: the personal side. Too often it is assumed that the 'have-not' is automatically exempt from all eternal laws of humanity, whether it be a 'have-not' nation or economic class or individual. We who are old-fashioned enough to call a crime a crime are labeled as warmongers or hypocrites or dupes of propaganda. Obviously the more relevant question is simply whether or not the legal way is being violated. In fact, those few groups strong enough to carry off a violent revolution successfully are also (almost invariably) strong enough to change the rules legally to fit their new game.

The 'instinctive, unwritten sense of justice' we hear so much about is basically, and always will be, mere glorified lynch law. In instinct, every new 1940 baby is still born a caveman. Law and tradition are the slow accumulation of civilized habits, the few thousand years' habits which alone prevent the 1940 baby from remaining a caveman. Since this accumulation is haphazard, it includes—as radicals correctly accuse—much evil as well as good. But the good and the bad in tradition are often interwoven inextricably by the past. And the past cannot be changed—not even by radicals with a Harvard accent.

You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal. I said 'magic' deliberately. Social stability rests to some extent on the aura surrounding our basic institutions. Such aura-wreathed pillars of tradition in various modern nations are the United States Supreme Court, an established Church, monarchy, a nonpartisan civil service and the aristocracy trained from birth to fill it. This social cement of tradition is too essential for every well-meaning, humanitarian Torn, Dick, and Harry to tinker with. It keeps us from relapsing into the barbarism inherent in our simian nature and in all mob 'awakenings.'

As menacing as open anarchists are those who discredit traditional institutions, not by attack, but by excess exploitation. The man who uses our institutions and Law as a barrier to, instead of a vehicle for, democratic reform is the real anarchist. I don't care a hoot whether any country, including ours, decides to use capitalism or socialism or any other material-ism, so long as it is attained through the vehicle of the traditional framework; so long as it is orthodoxly baptized and knighted by the magic wand of tradition; so long as it does not live 'without the Law.' I repeat: if moral absolutes do not exist, it is not so much the worse for them, but so much the worse for existence.

Presented by

The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it. They are repulsed by it."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


The Horrors of Rat Hole Mining

"The river was our source of water. Now, the people won't touch it."


What's Your Favorite Slang Word?

From "swag" to "on fleek," tweens choose.


Cryotherapy's Dubious Appeal

James Hamblin tries a questionable medical treatment.


Confessions of Moms Around the World

In Europe, mothers get maternity leave, discounted daycare, and flexible working hours.


How Do Trees Know When It's Spring?

The science behind beautiful seasonal blooming

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In