First Person

How I Became a Political Conservative

occupy everythingHow do we come to believe what we believe? It is hard to know because the person with the most knowledge of my development, namely myself, is probably its least detached observer. But it is unusual for someone of my generation who gained undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications, and then devoted a career to writing and teaching in a university, to have become politically conservative. Because it is atypical, my pathway may be of interest.

Looking back, two experiences were to prove formative to my political orientation. Needless to say, I am unclear about the degree to which they merely gave clarity to an inborn nature, which was in the process of emerging from under the mental clouds of adolescence; or were in themselves instrumental to my later views. I suspect more of the former than the latter. Frank Knopfelmacher once remarked that the key to a person’s political formation was what happened to them in their twenties—yes, but I think he underestimated what was innate.

The first experience was a six-week visit to Papua New Guinea early in 1963, when I was eighteen years old. Papua New Guinea was still an Australian colony at the time. I spent a few weeks in the Highlands including a period trekking with the local Australian Patrol Officer in a very remote area, part of which had only been visited once before by whites. I was shocked by the casual brutality of the local people. The Patrol Officer had just returned from intervening in a tribal war triggered by sorcery; I was present at men joking and laughing about an incident in which a group of them had been playing with a grenade, which had exploded killing several of their number. And I was in attendance when the Patrol Officer, who was police and justice in the area, conducted an impromptu trial of a local man who had chopped off his wife’s thumb when she protested about his getting their teenage daughter pregnant.

I became what I would later learn to categorise as a Hobbesian—about human nature and the need for political order. Rousseau’s “noble savage” was a delusion, and his famous line attacking civilisation wrong: “Man was born free, and is everywhere in chains.” It was not that I had accepted a monochrome black view of human proclivities; rather one of complexity. Six months earlier I had spent three weeks in Alice Springs doing volunteer work for the Inland Mission helping to build a college for Aboriginal children. In that time, I had been charmed by the Aboriginal relationship to the land, and the texture of Aboriginal religion as much (or little) as I understood it.

This essay appears in the May, 2015, edition of Quadrant.
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The second experience was May 1968, in Europe. I had been a student at Cambridge University for almost two years, and had already travelled widely, including half a dozen visits to Paris, a city I had come to love. I had attended meetings in opposition to the Vietnam War, and even joined a couple of marches—out of curiosity rather than conviction. I had been mildly in favour of the war up until 1967, then swung mildly against it. In Australia, then in Cambridge, I had been more inclined to the Labor/Labour parties. My political reading had swept from Plato, Machiavelli and Max Weber to anarchists like Stirner and Nietzsche, and on to the neo-Marxist Frankfurt School, which was, at the time, the most intellectually vital group still extant. I had even had a phase slightly taken by the Romantic guerrilla fantasy in the West surrounding Che Guevara. Looking back, what seems obvious is that I was roaming around intellectually, trying to find a home.

Then the student uprisings of May ’68 occurred. I was not in Paris at the time but had been a few weeks earlier. Two months later I was travelling in Greece, and at one point staying on one of the islands with an Australian family linked to the embassy in Vienna. At lunch one day at a table with a dozen or so present, drinking retsina and gazing out across the Aegean Sea, I was asked by the host what was going on with the student unrest. What was it all about? I remember vividly sitting upright in my chair, taken aback but then having a sudden moment of clarity, as if this had been on my mind in an inchoate state, struggling to find form. I replied to the effect: “It’s spoilt rich kids from very privileged backgrounds pretending to be the wretched of the earth, throwing a tantrum. They identify with some imaginary working class, but actually none of them would know what to say if they actually met a worker in the pub. It’s rank hypocrisy.”

My reaction against May ’68 was reinforced by growing distaste for the hippie drug culture which was emerging at the time. Fellow Cambridge students spending the day in a haze of marijuana listening to the same Bob Dylan song like a mantra repeated again and again seemed like a kind of world-denying self-annihilation. Music did characterise the times, and there had been some seismic shift away from the zesty ebullience of Elvis, the early Beatles, and the Rolling Stones. From the simple Dionysian fun of that music, which I had enjoyed in my late teens and early twenties in Melbourne, something dark and ugly was emerging. The Woodstock conference of 1969, as viewed on film (I was not there), symbolised the new. Those same progeny of the privileged upper middle class were rolling round stoned and nude, pretending to be uninhibited noble savages, but looking stiff, gawky and embarrassed, before rushing off to the telephone to call home—seemingly lost and lonely.

I spent a few months in Frankfurt in late 1971, by now turning off the highly intellectualised neo-Marxism that had prevailed there. Indicative of shifting interest, I was reading Heidegger on Nietzsche. Then I returned to Australia. My political views had so moved by this time that when Gough Whitlam led the Labor Party into the election of December 1972, with the slogan “It’s time!” I was underwhelmed. This was in spite of the sitting Prime Minister being Liberal William McMahon, for whom I had nothing but contempt (if he had remained in office long enough he might well have set the standard for the nation’s worst Prime Minister). I was in England at the time of the election and remember being relieved at having had an excuse not to vote.

From the mid-1960s, I had become increasingly engaged by the works of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, and in particular their wrestling with the challenges of ultimate meaning in an increasingly post-religious world. I was also fascinated by their brilliant psychologising of human character and its pathologies (an influence that I now regard as detrimental to my own early to middle work, which over-psychologised culture and its vicissitudes). My doctoral thesis drew on them in projecting what I characterised as an anarcho-psychological perspective on the human condition. No conservatism dwelt here, but there was a critique of socialism.

It was back in Australia that I soon took to the English eighteenth century and the works of Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, David Hume and Jane Austen. Here lay the flesh and colour for my growing conservatism. It was spearheaded by Burke’s attack on the French Revolution, as it mirrored my own response to the far more tepid and ineffectual May ’68, also set in Paris. Burke’s confidence about the good sense and healthy prejudices of the ordinary English man and woman struck a chord, as did his scepticism about grand intellectual blueprints for society, his dislike of the unworldly ranting intellectuals who put them into practice, with inevitable unforeseen consequences, and his observations that good institutions need time to build, drawing on the cumulative wisdom built up over generations. I was also drawn to the earthy, witty common sense of Dr Johnson, and to Hume’s scepticism. And the sober decency, calm thoughtfulness, stability and civility of Jane Austen’s gentry complemented, for me, Burke’s incarnation of noblesse oblige. In January 1976 in London, I bought a first edition of Burke’s 1790 version of his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke remains my favourite political philosopher.

What view of politics did I come to? It is quite simple really. I like Weber’s characterisation of the vocation of politics as the hard and slow boring of hard boards. Its real work is difficult and unglamorous, requiring a lot of selfless discipline, sobriety, tenacity and judgment. Charisma is usually a curse in politics, except in times of national emergency—notably, Winston Churchill in 1940—or, at most, in very dilute doses when leaders need to convince the electorate of the need for major changes.

In times of peace, the major task is steering the ship of state adroitly, taking account of international circumstances, exploiting national strengths, compensating for weaknesses, with the ultimate end of underwriting prosperity. The major way a government can contribute to social well-being is to secure a thriving economy with low levels of unemployment. The worst inequality afflicts people who can’t find work, and as a consequence are unable to lead self-sufficient lives, affording a reasonable standard of living. It is particularly demoralising for those leaving school, entering the adult world, not to be able to find a job.

In post-war Australia, the parties of the Right have been better at managing the economy than the Labor Party—with the striking exception of the Hawke–Keating years. While Labor has made contributions to particulars of social justice, health, and strengthening a welfare safety net, those contributions are minor compared with the benefit of ensuring prosperity and near full employment.

In the context of this discussion, economics is merely functional, outside political categories. I myself have drifted from a largely Keynesian inclination, with emphasis on government intervention to soften the extremes of boom-recession cycles—one which is sometimes falsely identified with social democracy—to a more free-market view. The shift was in response to Australia’s extraordinary prosperity since 1990, a prosperity guided by increasing market liberalisation since the Hawke era. The fact was that the free marketeers had been proved right. And it makes no sense to call dry economics conservative—it is radical liberal. By the way, I like capitalism—as I believe does virtually everybody who lives in the modern West, if they are honest.

Let me return to politics in the broad. The one major change that occurred in my later thinking was to reject a view of culture as primarily about morals—the Ten Commandment view that identifies culture with Thou shalt nots. My revaluation appeared in the book The Wreck of Western Culture, Humanism Revisited, which was first published in 1993. I had come to question Dostoevsky’s equation that without God everything is permitted: his argument that without faith in a transcendental absolute—God—there is no authority or reference point by which it can be asserted categorically that, for example, a kiss is good, a murder bad. The empirical reality was that the modern West had not degenerated into anarchy and mayhem as the Dostoevsky formula predicted. On the contrary, consensus about the main moral laws is not a problem in contemporary societies like Australia, which in any realistic historical terms are very orderly and law-abiding, with low levels of violence. If anything, as the churches have emptied, society has become more law-abiding. The typical modern individual is not an amoral egotist whose pleasures know no limits—a false caricature shared by many on both the Right and the Left. For me, morals were not the problem; meaning was.

I am not a moral conservative—Puritan, Catholic or Humanist. Lamenting some moral decline, or fraying of the social fabric due to increasing narcissism, is not to my taste. The sociological evidence simply does not support such cultural pessimism, certainly in Australia. Nor does it support the tradition of cultural conservatism within sociology that is concerned about the decline of community, and the steady reduction since the 1970s in the extent to which people socialise together—a tradition warning of social disintegration, rank anomie and mounting levels of personal despair. Australians continue to rate very highly on well-being indicators; visiting tourists rank them as the friendliest people in the world; and they have built the world’s most liveable cities. None of this suggests moral decay.

It is true that much more of human behaviour today is cast in a grey area between good and bad, where it is difficult to make confident judgments about right and wrong. I think that is truer to the nature of things—more honest. I like living in a time in which many of the big questions about value and meaning are in doubt.

From the Humanism book onwards my work has been concerned with the ways people find meaning in their lives. It has equally been concerned with the failure of High Culture to answer the big metaphysical questions about life and death, its abrogation of its traditional duty to provide convincing frameworks of understanding—especially through archetypal stories—to help people live better, and to bear up to the tragedies that will inevitably befall them at times during their lives. Here, I have argued for a type of modern decadence—located in the cultural elites.

There is a political tie. Most thinking on the Left has been self-confessedly “critical”. In this it has often distorted one of the indispensable strengths of the Western tradition since classical Greece, the habit of subjecting human life and society to sceptical questioning and reflection. The Left impulse has been less calmly quizzical, more aggressively hostile, seeking to undermine existing authorities without replacing them. Accordingly, art has to be shocking; values have to be deconstructed; meanings have to be exposed as rationalisations for entrenched wealth and privilege. Marx had himself set the tone, with his own great passion for destruction—in effect, for destruction in itself—with but passing and half-hearted interest in what green shoots might sprout in the ruins of capitalism. It is as if any true belief has perished, leaving a rage against the present.

A friend, John Dickson, has suggested that I have been unfair to the Left in underestimating the need for charisma in a world in which the old gods are no more. With the decay of institutional Christianity, the longing for something to believe in has strayed into politics. John has, I think, rightly suggested that I may have been unsympathetic to political idealism because I had little equivalent yearning for charismatic direction myself. Indeed, I am, in temperament, more like the vast majority of fellow citizens—the so-called ordinary men and women in the street—in finding in everyday life heroes to admire, activities to inspire, and tasks that are worthwhile. In work, in sport, enjoying the outdoors, and in the complexities of communal life, there is fertile soil in which to lead a meaningful and gratifying life.

Of particular relevancy here is love of country—and for me, love of my city, Melbourne. I have, since my Cambridge days, been shocked that so many on the Left hate their own country and identify with its enemies. George Orwell wrote in England in 1944, in an essay for Partisan Review, that he had come to judge the entire Left intelligentsia as hating their country, to the extreme of being dismayed whenever Britain won a victory in the war against Hitler. Hence the continuing idealisation of Stalinist Russia, wilfully blind to the available facts about its totalitarian horrors. My country’s enemy is my friend. Orwell still identified himself as a socialist when he wrote this, the Left’s most trenchant critic from the inside, so to speak.

Georg Lukacs proved the most intellectually distinguished twentieth-century example of Left idealism. He read bourgeois culture as the last Western form capable of providing life meaning, the last viable real culture in the evolution of the West. It was in terminal decline—as he interpreted it projected through the novels of Thomas Mann. Lukacs had tried the religious paths of both Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky (and with such a degree of seriousness as to learn Danish in order to read Kierkegaard in the original), but found them wanting. Out of cultural despair, feeling that it was not possible to live in an absurd world stripped of ultimate values, he took a leap of faith into communism in 1918. Thereafter, he would spend decades as an apologist for Stalin.

Later in the century, Lukacs’s spiritual offspring would be driven by a similar disenchantment with middle-class existence—with what they saw as, say, the dreariness of suburban life, the banality of contemporary management politics, and the meanness of an everyday world geared to petty pleasures. So, in reaction, there arose the need for visions of an ideal world, for causes that meant something, for action to get the blood flowing, and for charismatic leaders.

This idealism was not just naively utopian, but often harboured a darker side—rancour. The manifestations of rancour have been diverse, including hatred of country, to the point of hoping it would to lose a war to Hitler; the idealisation of mass-murdering totalitarian dictators like Mao Tse-Tung; or the actions of Australian unionists during the Second World War sabotaging parts for American planes to be used against the Japanese. Cultural masochism, and the well-springs of rage that drive it, remain a phenomenon in need of psychological explanation.

Surely, the twentieth century is one long cautionary tale about redemptive politics: promises of salvation through politics were central to the appeal of both Nazism and communism. And true, the idealism on the Left has largely dissipated (with rare exceptions like euphoria about President Obama, quickly dashed on the rocks of reality). But the carping negativity continues to thrive. Using neo-Marxist categories of exploitation and oppression to find “victims” of their own country’s mendacity, as a device to whip it—so Australia becomes racist, cruel to refugees, misogynist, homophobic and increasingly riven by inequality. The tropes endure, with Islam the current exploited and oppressed repository of virtue. The extremity and irrationality of the hierarchy of bitterness, with one’s own nation as Public Enemy Number One, is illustrated when some feminists applaud Taliban or Islamic State victories over Western troops.

In Australia, Left rancour has been readily observable in the universities, among writers, artists and musicians, and across the culture industry, which includes the ABC, galleries and museums, and in school curricula. It has been much less noticeable in the Labor Party itself, where leaders, ministers and their staff have generally been patriotic, moderate in their ideology, and pragmatic.

On the Right, there has been an equally unconvincing jump into redemptive illusion, in this case that of religion. In England, there was T.S. Eliot’s embrace of conservative Anglicanism, and likewise for W.H. Auden—in both cases, paralleled by a radical decline in the quality of their poetry. In America, there was Daniel Bell’s sociology of religion, a perspective that goes as far back as the late Plato of The Laws, holding that religion is good for the people, even though the author doesn’t believe in it himself. Philip Rieff championed an imagined sacred order, in an equally vain antidote to a remissive world without ultimate meaning.

Max Weber had been more honest in clinging to “intellectual integrity” in a time in which God has been replaced by small-g gods, ones that he saw as failing to retain their authority for long. (I happen to think Weber was too pessimistic about the small-g gods.) I am not suggesting that there is no genuine religious experience and practice in the modern West—that would be presumptuous. Rather, it has struck me that proclamations of faith, and the need for faith, from prominent members of the intelligentsia have looked desperate and forced. In the case of Rieff, the problem is not whether there exists something beyond the material plane, but that his manner of asserting it rings with a grandiose and false tone.

Back to myself. Fundamental to my own work—to what I have written and what I have taught—has been a belief about the obligations of the cultural elites. Bound by an ethic of a kind of noblesse oblige, given their privileged social position, they are the custodians of High Culture. It is their responsibility to keep alive the classic and enduring works of Western culture—in philosophy, literature, art, music and more recently film and television. A part of this responsibility is that of constantly renewing the archetypal stories and myths, retelling them in new forms so that they speak to changing times. The churches first abdicated this central task; followed more recently by the universities.

My view of culture is in part conservative; but then not, in that the challenge is always to create new works in tune with new times, while subservient to the central questions of meaning, which themselves don’t change. For instance, whilst I do regard the Golden Age of Western painting to have ended in 1665 with the death of Nicolas Poussin, since then the most serious attempts to answer fundamental questions of life meaning have moved into other art forms (the music of Bach; the philosophy of Nietzsche; the novels of Henry James; the films of John Ford). I myself have devoted two books to attempting to retell the West’s enduring stories in a contemporary voice—The Western Dreaming (2001) and The Existential Jesus (2007).

I retain confidence in the good sense of the public. I have provided a sociological elaboration in a book which celebrates the small-g gods that engage people in their everyday lives—Ego and Soul: The Modern West in Search of Meaning (1998, 2008). I retain an equal confidence in the healthy vitality of popular culture. Recent American cable television series, like The Sopranos and Deadwood, have been profoundly and edifyingly engaged with the existential questions that matter. In fact, they have been doing the work of High Culture, and doing it brilliantly well. Finally, my admiration for Burkean practical politics endures, a politics which, as Burke himself put it, needs to balance principle and circumstance.

John Carroll is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, La Trobe University. He has a website at


2 thoughts on “How I Became a Political Conservative

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Well done John!

    You are something I truly admire and wish there were far more.

    A radical and a reactionary.

  • Jody says:

    This is brilliant – especially the idea that the Left is motivated by rancour. Apposite. I couldn’t agree more. Congratulations for this piece and, in particular, your description of ‘unworldly’ academics.

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