What Is Paleoconservatism? Part IV: From Ideological Patchwork to a Philosophy of Human Nature
As it took shape, “paleoconservatism”—like all ideologies—was a piece of bric à brac, cobbled together with pieces from 1950’s liberalism that flew the false flag of conservatism, from which it took hostility to big government, public indecency, and abortion rights; from the misnamed ‘old right,’ from which it borrowed opposition to imperial wars; from the Libertarians, who strongly influenced—most obviously—our anti-imperialism, as well as the emphasis on individual liberty and non-governmental solutions to social problems, and from the populist traditions a suspicion of the ruling elite and a respect for the opinions of ordinary people whose brains had not been addled by the poisons of higher education.
(As an aside, I should note that while I am usually numbered as one of the authors of this so-called movement, I have never subscribed to any ideology. In this article I am trying only to describe what developed. Although we talked about composing some sort of manifesto and even put together a book of essays that remained unpublished--I could not persuade the then president of The Rockford Institute to support the project. The contributors included Sam Francis, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, and a number of others. I may have their mss. somewhere or perhaps they have fallen into the hands of people who could not read, much less consider publishing them.)
Into this mixture, some of us added a commitment to the traditions that lay behind the best aspects of American life: the classical tradition, of course, but also British literature. law, and history. This was sometimes confusing to outsiders, since I was fond of writing tongue-in-cheek denunciations of English journalists and making lofty pronouncements about what the UK owed its American rescuers. Frank Johson, who was kind enough to commission pieces for The Spectator may have taken the rhetoric seriously in the beginning--he certainly asked me to write over-the-top America-First columns--but he quickly came to understand that England had no better friend among American "conservatives," though my affection for the old country was subject to the stipulation that we were not going to die for them a third time.
To preserve these traditions and improve our understanding of them, we were also committed to serious scholarship, and we were willing to examine leftist contributions to science, history, and political theory. The anti-war leftists we came to know—people like the American historian Gene Genovese and Marxist political theorist Paul Piccone (also a populist), became strong if not always reliable allies. In the beginning, the knees of our leftist comrades would twitch leftward whenever subjects like racial politics crept into the conversation, but they brought with them a level of academic prestige that no self-described conservative, no matter how brilliant and hard-working, could ever expect to achieve in the leftist-dominated academy. When all parties could have honest conversations without looking over their shoulders, the conversations could be stimulating. I can remember long talks with Genovese and Clyde Wilson, Murray Rothbard and Sam Francis. We generally got on amazing well, considering we were all prickly characters.
Many of us also attempted to maintain a Machiavellian clarity of political analysis that Sam Francis, strongly influenced by James Burnham, insisted upon. My own classical background and my growing interest in all things Italian encouraged me to read Machiavelli’s Decades on Titus Livius with absorbing interest, and this reading was followed by studies of the leading Machiavellian thinkers who had been analayzed and praised by Burnham in his book The Machiavellians. I was particularly indebted to Machiavelli for stiffening my resolve to view the political world without ideological blinders and never to lose sight of the eternal realities of self-interest and the libido dominandi. The author of The Prince is naturally hated and feared by all the political hucksters who for many centuries have made themselves rich by selling tickets for exclusive viewings of the emperor’s new clothes.
We had a number of other things in common, including a fondness for the old America our grandparents had remembered, a respect for the Southern tradition, a willingness to learn from a broad spectrum of European intellectual life, a loathing for jargon, a distinct distaste for puritanism. Every club has its peculiar traditions and among paleoconservatives whiskey, cigars, and good country music were de rigueur.
There was one other important element that only one or two of us talked about, but underlay much of her thinking and gave shape and meaning to what might have otherwise seemed like an arbitrary hodgepodge of diverse elements, and that was the conviction that all wholesome moral, social, and political principles derived from human nature. The Christians naturally took the further step of attributing these principles to the Creation and its Author, but, as I had already explained in my first book, The Politics of Human Nature, the political revolutions that were destroying society and civilization were all aimed at overthrowing both the idea of human nature and the institutions--marriage, free enterprise, property, aristocracy--that flowed from it. In the defense of human nature and its institutions, Darwin and David Hume joined hands with Cicero and Aristotle, the Scriptures and Thomas Aquinas.
As the word implies, paleoconservatism is rooted in ancient and permanent principles of human nature. No one invented marriage, the family, or maternal love upon which the survival of our species depends. To be human is to live in families where senior men make the crucial decisions, and where the household is autonomous and self-governing in all its own affairs: the rearing and education of children, the provision of assistance for elderly and infirm members, disciplinary measures for those who violate the family’s laws. After hundreds of thousands of years of social and political evolution, the ancient (Greek, Roman, Jewish) and Medieval family retained most of its primitive authority and responsibility, and the first step of any conservative movement should have been the liberation of families and households from the power of the total state, whether that state is styled socialist, communist, national socialist, or democratic.
Social conservatives and some members of the Christian right have made similar pronouncements (albeit in a watered-down form), but they inevitably make their obeisance to the Left. “The state has harmed the family,” they say, “so now let the state make reparations by passing pro-family legislation;” or, they plead, “Let us restore family values but not with the crushing burden of patriarchy and inequality that disfigured earlier regimes: We have learned something, after all, in 2000 years.”
Really? What have we learned? Not to mind our own business? Not to accept responsibility for our selves and our families? Scientific and economic progress does not entail moral or social or political progress. The opposite is more often the case. The object of paleoconservatism was not to offer a nostalgic appeal to the Golden age of the 50’s--either the 1950’s A.D. or the 450’s B.C, but an insistence upon the truly permanent things that have been under attack for centuries and the memory of which is being obliterated in our time.