Can a conservative be a radical?

This excerpt from “Revolt on the Campus” by M. Stanton Evans was originally printed in New Guard’s September 1961 edition.

Throughout this discussion, I have emphasized the activism and the political energy of the young conservatives. The fact is frequently noted by those who seek to challenge its credentials as truly “conservative.” Picket lines, giant rallies, lobbying, precinct work—these, it is objected, are not the stigmata of conservatism.

Such young people want to change everything-to dismantle “social gains”; in addition to favoring individualist goals, they want to use radical means. If they were truly “conservative,” say their detractors, they would be content to accept the status quo—to rest with the “gains” legislated by the New Deal and its Democratic and Republican successors.

In this view, a conservative is complacent, withdrawn, inclined to introspection. In his political preferences, he favors government by an “elite,” and he likes to see society subdivided into hierarchies, with minimum opportunity for individual mobility. And, above all, the conservative is opposed to change. None of which consorts very well with the present shape of young conservative activity.

Before examining this criticism, I must acknowledge that its empirical foundation is sound: the young conservative of today is (1) determined upon change; (2) devoted to the cause of freedom; and (3) sometimes prone to use “radical” means. But do these things indicate that he is not a conservative?

The answer, of course, depends upon what one means by the word. If “conservatism” is an immutable catalogue of foibles, defining style of dress, views on personal activism, and political temperament, then today’s young rebels are indeed not “conservative.” For in these matters they often exhibit no continuity with the conservatives who have gone before them.

But if “conservatism” means, as I believe it should, a view of man, society and the moral order; if it means philosophical convictions, rather than surface characteristics, then today’s young rebels are, for the most part, true conservatives, and represent an authentic continuity with the great ideas of the conservative past.

Conservatism, as I conceive it is not primarily a matter of mood and temperament—although it cannot be denied that certain matters of tone and style are, all things being equal, more consonant with conservative principles than certain others. But conservatism is first and foremost a set of principles, a way of looking at man and his universe. And the other things are not equal.

There are two points of philosophy which have, through the ages, characterized the conservative. The first is the belief that ours is an ordered universe, informed by the purpose of a Divine Being. The second is that man, in seeking his place in this universe, is hampered by an imperfect mind and a vagrant will. Upon those postulates, the conservative constructs a view of society, of man’s place in it, and of the institutions suitable to man.

Because of them, he has favored a regime of stability premised upon a community of volition, and has tended to mistrust the unbridled exercise of power. Circumstances may change, but principles do not. In determining the political style appropriate to the conservative, the key question becomes: Are the circumstances congenial to the principles? As the answer varies so must one’s assessment of the methods by which circumstances may be accommodated, the principles sustained.

In general, we may assume that the conservative will resist change during periods in which the values he cherishes predominate. Since these values have, by and large, been the basis of Western civilization, the conservative has become habituated to quiescence—to preserving and nurturing the existing order. As certain changes occur, he strikes an intuitive balance: So long as the main tradition is preserved, he is willing to accommodate the change. Every tradition must provide a latitude for adjustment; this fact, plus the conservative’s habituation to a general continuity in his institutions, make him willing to accept changes of degree, and unwilling to resort to “radical” methods to overturn those changes, once established. Well and good.

But there comes a point there changes in degree fuse into a change in kind, where the essential tradition is not amended, nor modified, but violated; when the changes enacted are no longer adjustments which allow the central principle to survive n altered circumstances, but revolutionary acts conspiring to deny those principles. Faced with such conditions, the conservative’s characteristic mood no longer avails. By acquiescing in the established subversion of its principles, that mood becomes a silent partner in the work of destruction. The conservative must then consider what techniques are available to him, within the moral universe he cherishes, to restore his tradition.

It is just such a condition which today prevails in America, indeed throughout the West, and it is just such a condition which confronts the young man or woman who, grasping the essential lessons of our tradition, decides that he or she is a conservative. Frank S. Meyer, writing in Modern Age, notes that in our era “a revolutionary force” has shattered “the unity and balance of civilization.” In such an era, he says, conservatism “… cannot be limited to that uncritical acceptance, that uncomplicated reverence, which is the essence of national conservatism. The world of idea and symbol and image has been turned topsy-turvy; the life-dream of civilization has been cut off and dispersed.

Meyer concludes that a conscious conservatism is required, a conservatism which will “select and adjudge.” This, compelled by his altered circumstances, the young conservative is led to break with the “natural piety” which is most congenial to the conservative temperament. He is required to be, in the non-pejorative sense, an ideologue—with clearly conceived notions of how principles and institutions and men affect one another to form a culture and a society within it.

If that much is granted, the alleged “radicalism” of today’s young conservatives becomes comprehensible. Confronted with an established revolution, the conservative must seek to change the status quo; he has no other means of affirming his tradition. And in seeking that alteration, he must invoke certain of the techniques which are effective in producing change.



transoniq said...

This excerpt should be the manifesto for our generation. It provides the framework for a new conservative activism that is as needed today as it was in 1775. What remains to be done is for our leaders and our selves to shift the focus from the "why" to the "how," as in how, in our present circumstances, should conservative activism manifest.

Tactically, the left has made an intricate science out of social activism these past several decades, while onservatives with only a few exceptions have not progressed much beyond the "101" level required for their BS degree in modern life. This needs to change.

The good news is that much of the work has already been done. With study, we can see what has worked and what has not worked--a luxury Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman, e.g., did not have. Of course, some tactics of the American left could not be used by conservatives of good conscience, but when one views "tactics" apart from the ends they may have been used to acheive, one quickly realizes that the vast majority are as morally neutral as a typewriter or, for that matter, a bag of hammers.

To use a football analogy, conservatives are attempting to play in today's NFL with the 1948 Ivy League playbook. We'd better get busy updating our playbook! But on the plus-side we have a wealth of recent history to draw from, so it won't take 60 years for us to start winning some games.

  • Who we are

    New Guard is the magazine of a new conservative movement, populist in orientation, original and rigorous in its intellectual dedication and young and revolutionary in character. The articles will challenge the failed approaches of the past, expose the crisis of the age and suggest real alternatives. New Guard will focus on the real centers of power in our society: the universities, the culture, the local communities and the battles for the hearts and minds of our generation. We will fight for the vision of a restored republic and a proud Western people rather than a failed reactionary opposition. We do not reject the conservative label, but we think it is insufficient. New Guard is written for and by the organizers, intellectuals and activists of a New Right that will take back our future.