HOW BECAME A CONSERVATIVE

Told by Roger Scruton:

SCRUTON: GENTLE REGRETS (2005)

11/20/2016

[During Paris riots of 1968, Scruton was a student and visited Paris]

Chapter 4: How I became a Conservative (pp. 33–56)

…What, I asked, do you propose to put in place of this “bourgeoisie” whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enables you to play on your toy barricades?… And are you prepared to die for your beliefs, or merely to put others at risk in order to display them? I was obnoxiously pompous: but for the first time in my life I felt a surge of political anger, finding myself on the other side of the barricades from all the people I knew.

She replied with a book: Foucault’s “Les Mots et les choses the bible of soixante-huitards, the text that seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the ‘discourses’ of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue — by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies — that ‘truth’ requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the episteme, imposed by the class that profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for new things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is power, there is the right to destroy. In the street below my window was the translation of that message into deeds.

My friend is now a good bourgeoise like the rest of them. [like the Wall Street Yuppies, no doubt]…The French intellectuals have now turned their back on 1968, and the late Louis Pauwels, the greatest of their postwar novelists, has, in Les Orphelins, written the damning obituary of their adolescent rage. Foucault is dead from AIDS, contracted during well-funded tours as an intellectual celebrity. However, his books are on university reading lists all over Europe and America. His vision of European culture as the institutionalized form of oppressive power is taught everywhere as gospel, to students who have neither the culture not the religion to resist it. Only in France is he widely regarded as a charlatan.

By 1971, when I moved from Cambridge to a permanent lectureship at Birbeck College, London, I had become a conservative. So far as I could discover there was only one other conservative at Birbeck, and that was Nunzia — Maria Annunziata — the Neopolitan lady who severed meals to in the Senior Common Room and who cocked a snook at the lecturers by plastering her counter with kitschy photos of the Pope.

One of the lecturers, toward whom Nunzia had conceived a particular antipathy, was Eric Hobsbawm, the lionized historian of the Industrial Revolution, whose Marxist vision of our country is now the orthodoxy taught in British schools. Hobsbawm came to Britain a refugee, being with him the Marxist commitment and Communist Party membership that he retained until he could retain it no longer — the Party, to his chagrin, having dissolved itself in embarrassment at he revelation of its crimes. No doubt in recognition of this heroic career, Hobsbawm was rewarded, at Mr. Blair’s behest, with the second highest award that the Queen can bestow — that of Companion of Honour. This little story is of enormous significance to a British conservative, for it is a symptom and a symbol of what has happened to our intellectual life since the sixties. We should ponder the extraordinary fact that Oxford University, which granted an honorary degree to Bill Clinton on the grounds that he had once hung around its precincts, refused the same honour to Margaret Thatcher, its most distinguished post-war graduate, and Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. We should ponder some of the other recipients of honorary degrees…

Suffice it to say that I found myself, upon arrival in Birbeck College, at he heart of the left establishment that governed British scholarship. Birbeck had grown from Mechanics Institution founded by George Birbeck in 1823, and was devoted to the education of people in full-time employment. It was connected to the socialist ideals of the Worker’s Education Association, and had links of a tenacious but undiscoverable kind to the Labour Party. My failure to conceal my conservative beliefs was both noticed and disapproved, and I began to think that I should look for another career.

…I used my mornings to study fir the Bar: my intention as to embark on a career in which realities enjoyed an advantage over utopias in the general struggle for human sympathy. In fact I never practiced…I therefore received from my studies only an intellectual benefit — but a benefit for which I have always been profoundly grateful. The Common Law of England is proof that there is a real distinction between legitimate and illegitimate power, that power can exist without oppression, and that authority is a living force in human conduct. English law, I discovered, is the answer to Foucault.[1]

Inspired by my new studies I began to search for a conservative philosophy. In America this search could be conducted in a university. American departments of Political Science encourage their students to read Montesquieu, Burke, Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers. Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin and others have grafted the metaphysical conservatism of Central Europe on to American roots, forming effective and durable schools of political thought. American intellectual life benefits from American patriotism, which has made it possible to defend American customs an institutions without fear of being laughed to scorn. It ha benefited too from the Cold War, which sharpened native wits against the Marxist enemy in a way that they were never sharpened in Europe: the wholesale conversion of the social democratic Jewish intelligentsia of New York to the cause of neo-conservatism is a case in point. In seventies Britain, conservative philosophy was the preoccupation of a few half-mad recluses. Searching the library of my college I found Marx, Lenin and Mao, but no Strauss, Voegelin, Hayek or Friedman. I found every variety of socialist monthly, weekly or quarterly, but not a single journal that confessed to being conservative.

The view has for a long time prevailed in England that conservatism is simply no longer available — even if it ever has been really available to the intelligent person — as a social and political creed. Maybe, if you are an aristocrat or child of the wealthy and settled parents, you might inherit conservative beliefs, in the way you might inherit a speech impediment. But you couldn’t possibly acquire them — certainly not by any process of rational inquiry or serious thought. And yet there I was in the early seventies, fresh from the shock of 1968, and from the countervailing shock of legal studies, with a fully articulated set of conservative beliefs. Where could I for people who shared them, for the thinkers who had spelled them out at proper length, for the social, economic and political theory that would give them force and authority sufficient to argue them in the forum of academic opinion?

To my rescue came Burke. Although not widely read at the time in universities, he had not been dismissed as stupid, reactionary or absurd. He was simply irrelevant, of interest largely because he got everything wrong about the French Revolution and therefore could be studied as illustrating an episode in intellectual pathology. Students were still permitted to read him, usually in conjunction with the immeasurably less interesting Thomas Paine, and from time to time you heard tell of a ‘Burkean’ philosophy, which one strand within nineteenth-century British conservatism.[2]

Burke was of additional interest to me on account of the intellectual path he had trodden. His first work, like mine, was in aesthetics. [much more on aesthetic of modern architecture, for example]: And so it seemed to be that the aesthetic of modernism, with its denial of the past, its vandalization of the landscape and townscape, and its attempt to purge the world of history, was also a denial of community, home and settlement. Modernism in architecture was an attempt to remake the world as though it contained nothing save atomic individuals, disinfected of the past, and living like ants within their metallic and functional shells.[3]

Like Burk I made the transition from aesthetics to conservative politic with no sense of intellectual incongruity, believing in each case, I was in search of a lost experience of home. Ad I suppose that underlying that sense of loss is the permanent belief that what has been lost can also be recaptured — not necessarily as it was when it fist slipped from our grasp, but as it will be when it is consciously regained and remodeled…That belief is the romantic core of conservatism, as you find it — very differently expressed — in Burke and Hegel, in Coleridge, Ruskin, Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot….

Burke was not writing about socialism, but about revolution. Nevertheless, he persuaded me that he utopian promises of socialism go hand in hand with a wholly abstract vision of the human mind — a geometric version of our mental processes that has only the vaguest relation to the thoughts and feelings by which real human live are conducted. He persuaded me that societies are not and cannot be organized according to a plan or a goal, that there is no direction to history, and no such thing as moral or spiritual progress. Most of all he emphasized that the new form of politics, which hope to organize society around the rational pursuit of liberty, equality, fraternity, or their modernist equivalents, are actually forms of militant irrationality. There is no way that people can collectively pursue liberty, equality and fraternity, not only because those thing are lamentably underdescribed and merely abstractly defined, but also because collective reason doesn’t work that way.

People reason collectively toward common goal only in times of emergency — when there is threat to be vanquished, or a conquest to be achieved. Even then, they need organization, hierarchy and a structure of command if they are to pursue that goal effectively. Nevertheless, a form of collective rationality does emerge in these cases and its popular name is war…Moreover — and here is the corollary that came home to me with a shock of recognition — any attempt to organize society according to this kind of rationality would involve exactly the same conditions: the declaration of war against some real or imagined enemy. Hence the strident and militant language of the socialist literature — the hate-filled, purpose-filled, bourgeois-bating prose, one example of which was offered to me in 1968 a the final vindication of the violence beneath my attic window, but other examples of which, starting with the Communist Manifesto, were the basic diet of political studies in my university. The literature of left-wing political science is a literature of conflict, in which the main variables are those identified by Lenin, “Who? Whom?” …[4]

…the abstract, unreal freedom of the liberal intellectual is nothing more than childish disobedience, amplified into anarchy.[5]

[1] Pp. 35–37.

[2] Pp. 37–38.

[3] P. 39. I think he and Tom Wolfe would get along! From Bauhaus to Our House was something I read when at the GSD 45 years ago that was not so different in its criticism of modern archtecture.

[4] P 40.

[5] P. 41.

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