This is Part 13/1 of the Conservative Standpoint by Cole Dutton
Now it is time to turn to an examination of the relationship between conservatism and three political philosophical paradigms: Socialism/Communism, Liberalism, and Anarchism. It is my goal to expose some of the contradictions within these perspectives as well as paint a picture of what elements of their thinking harmonize with the conservative position and why. For despite criticisms to the contrary all three in some way touch of valid precepts, which may further illuminate the conservative position both as antithesis and similitude.
For the Communists and socialists, the first thing to be said is like all the highlighted political movements they are based in fundamentally modern thought. This is doubly true for socialism, for though it has ancient antecedents, it was only the burgeoning industrialization that enabled socialisms investment in the consciousness of millions.
We can refer back to Plato for the first expression of some communistic, totalitarian, and utopian paradigm by referring to his Republic. I am aware modern scholars differ in the interpretation of the book, some consider it invested in its utopianism like Sean Sayers and others such as Allan Bloom considered it largely a speculative and rhetorical work devoted to allegory, not one espousing a realistic political position. However, if we propose to take Plato seriously as a political philosopher then we cannot ignore his ideas about holding property in common or his notion that the family impinges upon civic loyalty.
Plato creates his Guardian class, representing the thymos or honour loving part of the soul, and as a necessary precondition to the existence of the just city and the just soul emphasizes their subordination to the political and internal order; this subordination comes at a totalitarian cost, a mastery of nature, and a crushing equality. Key to Plato’s vision, hierarchical as it remained, was construction of the Republic upon an absence of property ownership of the Guardian class, sexual equality, and the assignment or the acceptance of work which was ‘fitting’ to the nature of the producer (appetitive) class. This all to be presided over by the Philosopher King, who though charged with the supervision of breeding and the maintenance of order, remained capable of error.
But how does this Platonic vision correlate with the modern Socialist and Communist interpretations? Seemingly Plato’s lessons for the modern reformer, were that one can bring to fruition, if read in a specific fashion, a society composed of a conscious order and not an unconscious one, and that inequities between people need not be abided simply due to their prior existence. This sympathy with the egalitarian polis and the rule of right reason on behalf of the philosopher is key to the constructivist thought of socialism/communism.
Jesus may have been a socialist, by modern definition, after all the new testament proffered many seemingly socialist statements: “44. And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; 45. And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.” Acts 2: 44, 45 The gospels continue, “32. And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own; but they had all things common. 33. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. 34. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold. 35. And laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.” Acts 4: 32-35. Now it may come within a hair's breadth of modern socialist rhetoric, but whether or not the church itself exhibited such doctrine is irrelevant, what is relevant is that this particular understanding of the world, based around egalitarianism as an end, existed prior to the modern world and pressures of industrialization.
This natural equality found expression through the writings of Rousseau, who held, that man, in the state of nature, existed in a natural equality with his peers. He elucidated this position extensively in his Discourses on Inequality. To him the man who introduced property was also the one who introduced tyranny. But this was not all that bound Rousseau unknowingly to the Socialist cause; rather Rousseau exhibited key elements of utopian thinking that are necessary preludes to the Communist and Socialist worldview. The capacity to return to an equality is emblematic of this process. Though he did not advocate revolution, of which he said, “if they attempt to shake off the yoke, they move all the farther away because, as they mistake unbridled licence for freedom . . . their revolutions almost always deliver them . . . to seducers who only increase their chains.” Here Rousseau seems like an advocate of freedom however, one must ask does his logic naturally lead there?
The answer it seems is plainly “no” because as is evident later in the discourse Rousseau openly believes in the mastery of reason and perfectibility of man. This belief in perfectibility would naturally guide one to the conclusions that the political order of which one is a part is flawed and mendable. This capacity for remediation would naturally find expression at some point discontent outrage and revolution, for despite the fact the he himself did not advocate revolution, the human belief in its capacity to act rightly and its need to act on impulsion would provide the impetus to the manufacture of fetters.
Another critical commonality between Rousseau and the Socialists is his materialist conception of freedom. Firstly, he views the accumulation of commodities as the “first yoke” as it arouses envy and unnatural need, and secondly because he sees the reciprocal obligations between peoples as an expression of power not mutual interest. Rousseau catches himself in a contradiction of sorts “no temporal good can compensate for life or freedom,” and yet he continues to emphasize the economic nature of inequality as something needing remediation and is not willing to interpret a freedom beyond a limited concept.
Finally, Rousseau’s state of nature is dependent upon presuppositions that are erroneous. He is correct that the civilizational structure enhances the basic, natural differences between men, but he errs when he makes the suggestion that man’s cunning, aesthetic sense, wit, reason, and love had no natural cause to exist or be place into practice; he assumes that these characteristics if not following the introduction of civilization were at least only inchoate before the arrival of civilized life. Likewise, he suggests that an appetitive man, would not necessarily be violent and create Hobbes's war among men. He turns to anecdote to explain that man without possessions would be impossible to enslave, and in so doing makes the assumption that man can only be actuated or imprisoned by material things. When in fact we know reciprocal obligations are intrinsic to community flourishing, start in families, and that the best method of coercion among men is the ability to persuade and in turn muster a great number to a cause, something that requires nothing beyond the state of nature.
Therefore, the egalitarian errors primarily exist around the supremacy of man and reason, the materialist notions of economic determinism, and a concept of man’s nature which is both inconclusive and largely unknowable. But what do the Communist and Socialist get right? How if at all can they endear themselves to the Conservative’s understanding of society? For this we have to interpret the Egalitarian vision in the light of the modern world and the devolution of the Conservative identity within it.
To answer these questions, we must turn to the more contemporary work of Marx: the man is a fantastic exemplar of both the truths and falsehoods of communist doctrine; in this case Karl Marx, or perhaps Friedrich Engels, displayed brilliant intuition in identifying the problematic nature of capitalism something that would be wise for conservatives to heed.
When the Communists, Marx and Engels, identify problems as they do in The Communist Manifesto there are statements in abundance of which the conservative may find no general disagreement. For example, to Marx the bourgeoisie has done nothing but destroy the network of obligations and ties between the elements of the preceding feudal society. Their rise above the former feudal lordship has eliminated all binding distinction and replaced it with “naked self-interest” sustained by “callous cash payment.” Conservatives may not search for a return to a feudal hierarchy, but certainly the wise conservative does search for institutional authority and thick, non-economic, relationships.
The changing nature of work too changed the nature of the individual and the family. As Marx correctly notes the honour attributable to the expertise honed in craft over many years could be swept aside by the onslaught of the new and modern. Meanwhile, men found themselves, not only disconnected from the labour force, but also disconnected from their identity as wage earners and providers as women entered the workforce in great numbers. This mass entry of women into the workforce not only alienated the mothers of society from their children but also cost them their youth and fertility under the churning of industrial machinery; now however it is the hum of electric lights that saps the vigour and femininity from the women of the western world.
Finally, Marx despite his odious proclamations about the need to abolish the church and the family, and his rhetorical flourishes professing theoretical dogmata such as “[T]he theory of the Communists may be summed up in a single sentence: Abolition of private property.” Or “[w]orking men of all countries unite!” Marx identifies much of the illness, but fails in the cure, he even notes the endless churning of capitalism, the rapid race for efficiency, holding no promise of stability for the worker, the dominance of the market, and the expectation that alienated labour may adapt to new circumstances just like prices reach equilibrium. These are as insidious to the conservative as they are to the socialist.
Insofar as generalities may be drawn perhaps the answer is this: the conservative, being an astute conservator of things with implicit but vague utility and meaning, know that these institutions, structures, and social realities (often ancient) do not endear themselves to the unflinching money making paradigm of the capitalist order. Therefore, the conservative cannot be a strict capitalist. Not limited to this thought however, is that if the conservative truly believes in values beyond liberalism and commodious living then he must abolish the supremacy of economic dominance in political affairs. Perhaps Irving Kristol best summed up the epistemological break conservatives may work to remedy in the essay “Socialism an Obituary for an Idea” Kristol contends that early liberal theorists and classical economists did not concern themselves with the nature of the good life because they had an implicit assumption that the religious order would remain immutable and eternal. Men could “figure out the good” if given the scripture and the institutions to accompany it. Nonetheless it is apparent that we no longer can conceive of a “good” a “natural” a “right” or a “wrong” instead we are left with outrage, fear, and disgust with no accompanying salvation.