Radicalism and Conservatism: Thinking Aloud

Posted this originally on November 1st 2008. If you find the ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’ tone of many political (and other) quizzes annoying, you may find Kevin Carson’s thoughts on the matter of interest!

‘Radicalism’ and ‘Conservatism’ are words that are used in politics to pretty much describe anything. Not as bad as, say, using ‘Socialism’ or ‘Fascism’ as political swear words, but not far off. However, ‘radicals’ can be described as people who want to change things politically, while ‘conservatives’ want to conserve things. I call myself an ‘English Radical’, but not an ‘English radical’, as ‘English Radicalism’ is recognised as a phrase encompassing a number of ideas and historical figures/movements ie the idea of a post-1066 ‘Norman Yoke’; the Levellers; Tom Paine; the Chartists; William Morris; GDH Cole. An ‘English radical’, on the other hand, is just an English person who happens to be ‘radical’.

However, most people would associate political ‘Radicalism’ with ‘the Left’ (don’t get me started…) and/or Socialism, while Conservatism is associated with ‘the Right’ and/or Capitalism. However, is that the right way to look at politics? I am reminded of a John Le Carre quote I posted up a few months back:

‘The mere fact that communism didn’t work doesn’t mean that capitalism does. In many parts of the globe it’s a wrecking, terrible force, displacing people, ruining lifestyles, traditions, ecologies and stable systems with the same ruthlessness as communism.’ (Times Higher Educational Supplement, 20/6/97, p.11.)

If Conservatism = Capitalism, surely it should not be ‘The World Turned Upside Down’ (to use a good phrase from the English Civil Wars) in the same way Communism promised to? Then I think of the Communist Manifesto: the capitalism and capitalists Charlie and Fred describe are hardly ‘forces of conservatism’ (to use a Blairism- Tony not Lionel):

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.’ (David McLellan, ed., Karl Marx: Selected Writings, Oxford University Press, 1988, p.224.)

From a different perspective then, Capitalism (or the corporate, globalising version) can be considered to be dangerously ‘radical’, not ‘conservative’. At the same time, I think a lot of ‘Left/Socialist’ political activity can be seen as ‘conservative’. That is, it is activity that(usually rightly) tries to conserve jobs, health and social services, educational institutions, the environment etc from rapacious corporations and financial institutions.

So I think it is quite respectable to be both a political ‘radical’ and a political ‘conservative’. Better than being a corporate frontperson, that’s for sure! A lot of the current unease about the crisis in the global financial system stems from the wish of individuals to see their savings/job/home protected and/or conserved from the rapaciousness of institutions that wish to turn all that is solid for individuals into air.

Looking through my files I found notes I made probably about ten years back from a book I got from the local library by Trevor Blackwell and Jeremy Seabrook called The Revolt Against Change: Towards a Conserving Radicalism (1993: Vintage). Here’s what I wrote down:

‘…the reason why parties advocating radical change were so unsuccessful was because they were striking against the resistance of people who had changed. who had been compelled to change, too much.’ (p.3)

‘…the only radical politics left to us should be based upon resistance, recuperation and remembering.’ (p.4)

‘To talk about the people’s refusal to change has a curious resonance at the end of a period of two hundred years which have seen nothing but incessant, remorseless change. If there is one thing which is obvious to anybody it is that the last two centuries have been a period of unprecedented change.’(p.11)

The conservatism of the people has been stolen by a social and economic system which can never deliver to them the security which is at the heart of their conservative impulse.’
…true radicalism does not consist in tearing up society by its roots…, but on the contrary, returns to those roots in order to nourish their survival and sturdy growth.’ (p.56)

…a true conservatism (preserving what is of value) is seen to be in opposition to its false namesake (maintaining industrial society); just as a true radicalism (fundamental change) stands against its counterfeit (endless uprootings by the industrial system).’ (p.64)

‘To be radical now is to resist the ever more invasive intrusions of a world system that can afford to leave nothing alone, but that must open up new pathways to profit deep in the still unexploited fastnesses of the heart, the secret depths of the psyche, even when it goes about its global privatisations…To be radical now is to say we want to be left alone to determine our lives, to say that our needs are more important than the system’s necessities.’

‘The radicals and true conservatives both know that there are things that are beyond price, and that this precious inheritance sustains us all. A conservatism that has thrown in its lot with universal market forces has lost its roots; and a radicalism that accepts the gratuitious tearing up of all that is rooted in human experience could have no idea where it is going.’(pp.95-6).

‘In the existing order, the apparent oppostion of conservatism and radicalism conceals their common subordination. Both tend solely to a conserving of profit; and the means whereby this is attained is through continuous change and upheaval.’ (p.96)

‘It should be a characteristic of the new radicalism that the people should determine their own role and function in bringing about social change and safeguarding human activities.’(p.97)

While typing these extracts out, it did occur to me that while people are often ‘out-radicalised’ politically and culturally (ie ‘I’m more of a socialist/Leninist/Eurosceptic/punk/Muslim than you/thou’)people are rarely ‘out-conserved’. I might try it out at some point:

‘We get our freedoms from Magna Carta.’
‘No, we get them from the Anglo-Saxons, Norman-lover.’

‘It’s traditional to smoke in pubs.’
‘Only in the last four hundred years. By the way, did you know cancer cures smoking?’

‘This is a Christian country.’
‘Tell the Druids that.’

But I digress…

I probably would not have put this post up without this recent one by Chris Dillow:

October 08, 2008: conservatives for revolution

James Delingpole says of Ian Hislop:

I think he’s a bit like Jeremy Paxman — another of those handsomely remunerated, public-school-educated presenters who believes in most of the things a Tory ought to believe in (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, riding to hounds, warm beer, Brief Encounter, probably).

But I too believe in these things – especially as Britain‘s Most Evil Man doesn‘t.

Indeed, I suspect a reverence for English traditions is more common on the Left than amongst the Conservative Party. Neil Clark’s tastes border on the reactionary; Francis Sedgemore is a Morrisman; you’ll struggle to find a Conservative voter at a meeting of CAMRA or at a Martin Carthy gig. [I did leave a comment to this post to say that CAMRA’s public face, Roger Protz, used to be ‘Socialist Worker’ editor in the early 1970s.] And when Shuggy writes that ‘our culture seems incapable of expressing disapproval of something unless it can be shown that someone’s rights have been violated’ he is expressing a conservative view.

Many leftists, then, have Tory sentiments. And many Conservatives do not; David Cameron’s Desert Island Discs are not those of a conservative.

Which raises the point – that the conservative temperament and the Conservative party are two completely different things – indeed, two opposed things.

One reason for this is that the pursuit of profit – which Conservatives support – destroys the traditions loved by conservatives. As Marx and Engels said:
Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

Another reason is that the conservative temperament is sceptical of individuals’ new ideas, and of anyone‘s claim to know better. As Oakeshott put it: ‘it is beyond human experience to suppose that those who rule are endowed with a superior wisdom.’ The conservative prefers the tried and trusted to the new; he prefers to back the field than any particular horse.

But bosses reject all this. Their claim to power – in business or in government – is a claim to an especial expertise. And the Conservative party, at least in my lifetime, has been the party of bosses.

The conservative temperament gave us mutual building societies, with their local roots and long traditions. The Conservative party gave us the demutualized societies, which blew up spectacularly.

The conservative disposition, then, to use Oakeshott’s phrase, is opposed to Conservative politics. Bryan is right: socialism is ‘certainly not in conflict with true conservatism.’

I’d go further. One reason why I have revolutionary sympathies is precisely that I have a conservative disposition.

For one thing, in replacing hierarchy with co-ops is one way (the only way?) to assert the wisdom of crowds and the tacit knowledge embodied by professional and craft traditions over the spurious rationalism of managerialist ideology.
And for another, institutions – in the long-run – shape character. And the conservative temperament sees much to bemoan in the modern character: the saccharine displays of public emotion; the supine expectation of ‘leadership’ from those above us; the inability to stand on one’s own two feet and face the responsibility of one’s own actions; the demise of virtue and rise of priggish rule-following; the pursuit of external rather than internal goods ; and the demand that we ‘respect’ others’ sensibilities regardless of their imbecility.

If such widespread failings of character are to be reversed, we might need radical institutional change.

In this sense, revolution and conservatism are compatible.

The reference to public schools at the start reminds me of the description of old Etonian George Orwell as being conservative in everything except politics. I’ve been struck by the similarities in his personal tastes with those of a proper cultural and political conservative, J.R.R. Tolkien. George:

‘Outside my work the thing I care most about is gardening, especially vegetable gardening. I like English cookery and English beer, French red wines, Spanish white wines, Indian tea, strong tobacco, coal fires, candlelight and comfortable chairs. I dislike big towns, noise, motor cars, the radio, tinned food, central heating and ‘modern’ furniture.’ (Gordon Bowker, George Orwell, Abacus, 2004, p.263).

John:

I like gardens, trees and unmechanised farmlands. I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking…I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour…;I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.’ Humphrey Carpenter, ed., The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien , Harper Collins, 1995, pp.288-9.

(BTW For a few years I have somewhere in my mind a plan to write a ‘compare/contrast’ piece on Orwell and Tolkien, but I have a feeling it might never be started. Apart from their major differences on Catholicism and politics, I think they would have got on, especially with their respective interests in the nature of power and language, as well as their love of English nature. Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, read English at Oxford, and one of her teachers was Tolkien (Bowker, op cit, p.167.)

Now this post has ended up at Tolkien, another set of notes I’ve found this evening are on Meredith Veldman’s 1994 book (Cambridge University Press) Fantasy, the Bomb and the Greening of Britain: Romantic Protest, 1945-1980 which I first came aware of via Patrick Wright’s review in the Guardian on St.George’s Day aka Shakespeare’s Birthday/Death called ‘How the Hobbits saved the world’. I eventually got around to reading it (and making notes) a few years later. The inspiration for Veldman’s book was when she was reading both The Lord of the Rings and E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class while working as an academic in Chicago and finding them extremely similar in tone. In her book Veldman traces the roots of romantic revolt in the British Isles against industrialism from the late Eighteenth Century through to the anti-nuclear protests of the post-1945 period. Some of these ‘romantic protests’ have extremely dodgy politics (the Soil Association, worthwhile organisation that it is now, was part-founded by people with pro-Fascist/Nazi ties (Veldman, p.202) but there were also very democratic ones, in both political and economic terms (ie G.D.H. Cole and ‘Guild Socialism’; G.K. Chesterton and ‘Distributism’). I intend to discuss them, and other themes from Veldman’s book, sooner rather than later.

I think I’ve strayed a bit in this post away from discussing radicalism and conservatism. That’s thinking aloud, I guess. I hate writing conclusions, but I would say that I think there is room for democratic ‘radicals’ that don’t hold onto Big Business or Big Government (including those who think quoting Lenin makes Big Government better for ordinary people) and democratic ‘conservatives’ who don’t cheerlead for the Corporations (and aren’t obsessed with Race and/or Religion) to get together, discuss things and work together. Perhaps I haven’t persuaded people so, but I hope that you’ve found this post interesting, one way or another!

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