The Need For Something New
This article was originally published in The Mallard on 4th May 2020.
“The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected.”
– G.K. Chesterton.
I was pleased to see my fellow Mallard writer Samuel Martin’s recent article in which he concludes the necessity of a conservative “march through the institutions”. I, too, have been pondering the need for fundamental, drastic change within British, and indeed Western, conservatism. It is becoming increasingly apparent to me, as the Overton window creeps further and further left, that true small-c “conservatives”, if they can even be called that anymore, must abandon the Burkean tradition and become more truly revolutionary.
Burkeanism is based on the principle of slowly and cautiously accepting reform. But the sweeping changes of the last fifty years do not constitute mere reform, but nothing short of cultural revolution. Timid Burkean conservatism is no longer equipped to help us – there is virtually nothing left of our civilisation to conserve. Burke himself denounced the French Revolution when he saw it. Only counter-revolution can save us now.
That said, there is no going back to the past. This is a fact with which we must acquaint ourselves. As regrettable as it is, the public will always associate past eras and ended empires with failure, and so for any conservative movement to achieve dominance (whether through cultural hegemony or political power) it must propose something NEW.
When Napoleon rose to power, he did not try to restore the Ancien Régime. He knew its reputation was irreversibly tarnished, just as our own ancien régime was tarnished by Suez and Profumo. Instead, he established his own dynasty which combined both old and new. He was not the King of France, but By the Grace of God and the Constitution of the Republic, Emperor of the French. The fleur-de-lis was replaced with the golden bee. Napoleon wielded absolute power that was paradoxically guaranteed by a written constitution. Old feudal law was replaced by the Napoleonic Code. Order was restored to revolutionary anarchy, but this was not the same France, and, despite the attempts of later Legitimists, never would be again.
Britain in the early 19th century was almost as revolutionary and tumultuous as it is today. Take the Regency era for example, as described by the historian E.A. Smith,
“The squalor that existed beneath the glamour and gloss of Regency society provided sharp contrast to the Prince Regent’s social circle. Poverty was addressed only marginally. The formation of the Regency after the retirement of George III saw the end of a more pious and reserved society, and gave birth of a more frivolous, ostentatious one. This change was influenced by the Regent himself, who was kept entirely removed from the machinations of politics and military exploits. This did nothing to channel his energies in a more positive direction, thereby leaving him with the pursuit of pleasure as his only outlet, as well as his sole form of rebellion against what he saw as disapproval and censure in the form of his father.”
As the aristocracy grew ever more debauched, worldly interests dominated British colonial affairs at the expense of morality (i.e. the Atlantic slave trade), and burgeoning industrialisation and the ensuing population boom disrupted ancient communities and created a godless, uprooted new working class. The counter-revolution came in the evangelical and Methodist movements, which restored British Christianity among all classes, abolished the slave trade, and brought God, temperance and community to the workers. The fruits of this re-evangelisation were felt throughout the Victorian era up until the 1960’s when the new godless cultural revolution took hold.
These evangelical and Methodist movements were, like Napoleon, both new and old – a modern spin on an ancient thing. Such is the only way to bring back Tradition in the face of revolution – to reinvent it. To give an old wall a fresh lick of paint.
There are darker examples of this revolutionary conservative ethos. The Conservative Revolution (Weimar era), National Socialism, Fascism, Falangism and Salazarism all tried to combine past and present, but in their endeavour to do so ultimately discarded too much. The Conservative Revolutionaries, the Nazis and the Fascists all threw out Christian morality, and the Falangists & Salazarists threw out basic liberalism (which, of course, is part of the Western inheritance). We must therefore be very careful about how we reinvent Tradition; that we do not mutate it into something unrecognisable and possibly dangerous.
As I mentioned before, very little of the ancien régime remains for us to conserve. The New Left has achieved unparalleled cultural hegemony. They are the new establishment, the much maligned “liberal élite”, and have been for a long time.
In which case, in what sense can we continue to honestly call ourselves “conservatives”? We need to learn not only to conserve what little is left, but to restore and to innovate. Only when we have taken account of not only the past, but the present, the future, and indeed, the eternal, will we have a complete ideology.
What, then, should we call ourselves? Terms like “neoreactionary”, “archaeofuturism”, and “reactionary modernism” have sadly been taken by the far-right. Likewise “neoconservative” is used to refer to ex-Trotskyists who like to pretend to be right-wing, and even the word “counter-revolutionary” falls into that typical conservative trap of defining ourselves by our opponents. Other options include “novaconservatism” or “supraconservatism” – that is, going above and beyond conservatism – or perhaps “organicism” or small-r “romanticism”.
It doesn’t really matter. I cannot say what form a British supraconservative movement would take, only that we need one. We can’t raise the old flags, or sing the same songs, or rebuild the same Empire. We must raise new flags, write new songs, and build a new Empire from the ashes of the old. We must create a future informed by, not defined by, the past.
I may not be able to predict the exact form of this movement, but I can hazard a few guesses. The United Kingdom may need to dissolve in order for its people to move on from the shame of losing an Empire. We have already been seeing a resurgent English nationalism in recent years. The new religion must be similar, yet different, to the old dead Christian establishment. If it isn’t Jordan Peterson’s brand of psychological Christianity, possible contenders include Roman Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, or some new thing. The virtues of Old Britain will return under new names. For example, grammar schools and secondary moderns could come back under some such titles as “academies” vs “comprehensives”, in order to avoid the ideological hatred of grammars which the cultural revolution instilled in many British people.
As Mr Martin wisely pointed out in his own article, the counter-revolution must not merely strive for political power, but dominance in every institution – legal, cultural, religious, academic, artistic, technological and social. We must use the tools of the New Left against them. The first step in our struggle will be to establish our own supraconservative counterculture, in parallel to that of the New Left in the 1960’s. I am confident that passionately-held belief will always triumph over nihilism, and the West as it currently stands is certainly nihilistic. Our real battle will be with the knowing (and unknowing) servants of far-left dogma, in which the supraconservative ethos of being fresh, yet familiar will prove vital in gaining popular support. The far-left are purely “fresh”, and while many youths find that exciting, it has a tendency to scare and alienate the general public. The old conservatism, meanwhile, is purely “familiar”, which identifies it with the wrongs of the past and attracts accusations of outdatedness. Supraconservatism has an advantage over them both.
I have one last point to make on the necessity of supraconservatism. We, as conservatives, may continue to go along with the post-Sixties cultural revolution, meekly accepting it under the false guise of “reform”, or like true reactionaries, we may reject it entirely, and try as best we can to scrub its memory from history’s grizzled face. But even if the latter were possible, it’s not entirely desirable.
No, I don’t think the cultural revolution was in the least bit necessary or worthwhile. Its ills far outweigh its fruits. But those rare fruits do, alas, exist.
In the Simon Raven novel Places Where They Sing, set in 1967, a crusty old conservative don at Cambridge remarks that for all their flaws the most admirable thing about the young revolutionaries of that era was their absolute opposition to racial bigotry. Likewise, we can be thankful for the equal opportunities the mid-20th century upheaval provided for women in the workplace. Nobody misses the criminalisation of homosexuality, and while the tradition of popular music the counterculture introduced mostly consists of overvalued, pretentious nursery rhymes, there have been genuine artistic endeavours in this regard, especially in the black community (the same could be said of post-Sixties art in general – mostly trash, with a few treasures here and there). Additionally, while I lament the decline of standards in all things, in some respects I’m glad we’re not so prudish as we used to be.
Perhaps I’m being too kind. Surely Western societies could have liberalised from Victorian stuffiness without destroying the fundamental premises of their culture – surely many of these reforms would have happened anyway? And the left, too restless to let a good thing stand, even – especially – of their own design, have since transformed anti-bigotry and equal opportunities into a divisive, patronising positive discrimination.
But having a disease is the only way to become immune to it. I’ve made it clear that Burkeanism – that is, carrying on with our present trajectory, only more slowly – is not the way to go. We really do need to overthrow the status quo. But if, like Napoleon, we can incorporate the essence of what was good & righteous in the cultural revolution, and discard what was not, then we will become stronger than it, and triumph over it. Maybe this really is a Burkean argument after all. Maybe this would have been precisely Burke’s response had revolution gripped Britain in the 18th century. It’s simply vital that modern Burkeans understand we’re not living in the same country, the same ancient oak, as we were fifty years ago. We are a new cutting, and thus our task is very different.
Photo by Terry White on Flickr.