The Mischaracterisation of Conservatism

W.B. Yeats in his poem the Second Coming writes “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world”.  While written in 1919, soon after the death and disillusionment of the First World War and the Easter Uprising in Dublin, Yeats’ lines also describe the world of today: a time of radical change where established institutions and long-held beliefs are misrepresented as conservative, elitist and characterised by inequality and injustice.  A time where the most grievous crimes one can commit are to question the need for radical change while arguing there is much in the past worth celebrating.

Instead of being seen as beneficial or worthwhile societies, like Australia they are condemned as inherently racist, sexist, heteronormative and guilty of oppressing and marginalising ‘the other’.  Western civilisation, instead of being valued even as its faults are acknowledged, is attacked as ‘Eurocentric’ and riven with ‘white supremacism’. At universities in England academics argue European science that grew out of the Enlightenment can never be “objective and apolitical”, that it is guilty of being “a fundamental contributor to European imperialism”. Across the English-speaking world academics and radicalised students argue a curriculum based on a liberal view of education reinforces capitalist hierarchies and that it must be “de-colonised” to ensure the disadvantaged and oppressed are no longer marginalised and ignored.

Inspired by neo-Marxist-inspired critical theory, cultural-left activists argue the way forward is to reject the past and to embrace their brave new world — a socialist utopia, as summed up by the Italian philosopher Augusto Del Noce, where “all contradictions have been solved” and where “there is a perfect harmony between virtue and happiness”. As Del Noce details, such radical calls for “total revolution” can be traced  to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Karl Marx and their desire to generate a future “in which nothing resembles the old history”. Ignored, since the time French revolutionaries took to the streets promising liberty, equality and fraternity, is the subsequent reign of terror epitomised by Madame Guillotine. Every violent revolution since has ended in the imprisonment, torture, starvation and death of countless millions.

De Noce writes, as a result of denying “the very idea of virtue in the traditional sense”, one is left with “every cruelty and every violation of the moral order for the (supposed) sake of future happiness”. Or, as noted by Pope John Paul

When people think they possess the secret of a perfect organization that makes evil impossible, they also think they can use any means, including violence and deceit, in order to bring that organization into being.  Politics then becomes a ‘secular religion’ which operates under the illusion of creating paradise in this world.

Cancelling the past and characterising conservatives as inflexible and ossified also distorts what conservatism entails and what it seeks to achieve.  It is wrong to equate conservatism with being reactionary. Del Noce argues

Whereas a conservative is reconciled with present reality … a reactionary is completely dissatisfied  and regards the present as a state of decadence … and wants to go back in time, to an age when such decadence and disintegration did not exist.

Rather than an inflexible and backward looking set of beliefs the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott describes conservatism as a particular disposition and way of thinking.  A disposition not idolising “what is past and gone” but one that values “the inheritance of the past” when evaluating what is yet to come. Oakeshott also makes the point, contrary to the argument that teaching about the past is always ex cathedra, that learning about one’s cultural inheritance involves a conversation; a situation where one learns “to recognize the varieties of human utterance and to participate in the conversion they compose”. 

The English cultural critic Roger Scruton makes a similar point, drawing on Edmund Burke’s response to the French Revolution, that conservatism instead of being caught in the past involves a recognition and appreciation of the past, the present and the future.  The emphasis is on continuity as well as change. Scruton writes how society “is an association between the dead, the living and the unborn. It is a shared inheritance for the sake of which we learn to circumscribe our demands, to see our place in things as part of a continuous chain of giving and receiving”. While neo-Marxist activists seek to cancel the past and deny Western civilisation’s inheritance, Scruton writes “For the conservative, human beings come into this world burdened by obligations, and subject to institutions and traditions that contain within them a precious inheritance of wisdom”. 

While there’s no denying Western civilisation is guilty of a range of sins including slavery and imperialism, denying women the same rights as men and the worst excesses of capitalism, it’s also true the West, more than any other civilisation, has championed justice, freedom and liberty. As argued by Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, “The crimes of the West have produced their own antidotes. They have provoked great movements to end slavery, to raise the status of women, to abolish torture, to combat racism, to defend freedom of inquiry and expression, to advance personal liberty and human rights”. Schlesinger also makes the point that it’s ironic those radicals committed to critical theory and its numerous offshoots, while denigrating and attacking Western civilisation, draw on European theorists including “Marx, Nietzsche, Gramsci, Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Habermas” and “analytical weapons forged in the West”. 

As a result of what Schlesinger describes as “the internally redemptive potentialities of the Western tradition” citizens in Western liberal democracies like Australia, unlike those living in theocratic regimes such as Iran and communist states including North Korea and China, have an unparalleled degree of liberty and freedom.

An inheritance drawing on unique concepts such as the inherent dignity of the person, equality and freedom for all, popular sovereignty, free will and a commitment to social justice and the common good.  An inheritance that has evolved over thousands of years that must be nurtured, conserved and never taken for granted.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior research fellow at the Australian Catholic University and editor of Cancel culture and The Left’s Long March, which can be ordered here

13 thoughts on “The Mischaracterisation of Conservatism

  • Peter Smith says:

    Pretty good go here Kevin, I think, at defining what being a conservative means. In my latest bible study session we have been grappling with what ‘holy’ means. I made one attempt by suggesting what it isn’t, which is how we humans conduct ourselves. Paul Kelly this morning wrote that the unvaccinated “must realise that they can’t enjoy all the privileges they once did…” As soon as someone uses the word ‘privileges’ in this context, instead of individual human rights, you know that a conservative is not behind the pen.

  • Alistair says:

    One should always be careful not to confuse the terms “Conservative” and “Liberal” nor “Conservative” with the “Enlightenment”. I think that Leftist, Helen Puckrose, explained the current situation very well.

    “The desire to ‘smash’ the status quo, challenge widely held values and institutions and champion the marginalized, is absolutely liberal ethos. Opposing it is resolutely conservative. This is the historical reality, but we are at a unique point in history where the status quo is fairly consistently liberal, with a liberalism that upholds the values of freedom; equal rights and opportunities for everyone regardless of gender, race, and sexuality. The result is confusion in which life-long liberals wishing to conserve this kind of liberal status quo find themselves considered (accused of being) ‘conservative’ and, wishing to avoid (the label of) ‘conservatism’ at all costs, find themselves defending irrationalism and illiberalism.”

    Puckrose continues (here, the term ‘modernity’ being the goal of ‘liberals’, and is therefore a synonym for the ‘Enlightenment’, – as distinct from ‘postmodernism’ whose goal is the destruction of the ‘Enlightenment’) (Puckrose’s emphasis) :

    “If we see the essence of modernity as the development of science and reason as well as humanism and universal liberalism, postmodernists are opposed to it. If we see modernity as the tearing down of structures of power including feudalism, the Church, patriarchy, and Empire, postmodernists are attempting to continue it, but their targets are now science, reason, humanism and liberalism. Consequently, the roots of postmodernism are inherently political and revolutionary, albeit in a destructive, or as they would term it, in a de-constructive way.”

    The Left has weaponised the term “Conservative” in order to terrify weak-willed Liberals into complete submission. Consider the fates of staunch liberals John Howard and Tony Abbott, who were successfully labelled “conservative” and brought utterly to their knees, and made persona non grata in their own Party!

  • Kevin Donnelly says:

    Hi Peter and Alistair, even Michelle Gunn the editor of The Australian newspaper is afraid of being seen as ‘conservative’. In the paper she argues the “The values of the paper are not conservative values… the Australian is more characterised as a radical in national debate”. Strange times when a Murdoch paper joins the likes of the Guardian.

  • ianl says:

    >”An inheritance drawing on unique concepts such as the inherent dignity of the person, equality and freedom for all, popular sovereignty, free will and a commitment to social justice and the common good.”

    Sorry KD, but that sentence contains a non-sequitur that instantly destroys the sense of your article.

    Social justice means … what ? This is similar to social licence … means what ?

    I agree though with your comment on Michelle Gunn. Doubtless chosen by a younger News Corp scion, she writes, or causes to be written and published, editorials containing arm-waving contradictions that slaughter logic and then suppresses critical questioning that expose them.

    One of the necessary steps in eventually resolving the C-19 situation in Australia, in my view, is the re-classification of journos as NON-essential, instantly banishing them to home detention without pay – like everyone else. At least their incessant yapping would stop.

  • DougD says:

    “Strange times when a Murdoch paper joins the likes of the Guardian.” Don’t concern yourself unnecessarily Kevin: for progressives Murdoch will always remain the Great Satan – Exhibit 1: the Senate Media diversity enquiry. Exhibit 2: Murdoch media’s failure to control the results of the last US presidential election (and the last Queensland election).

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    It staggers belief that Marxism, given its record of unparalleled death and destruction, is still around and still considered a candidate for human betterment. Where tried it has consistently resulted in poverty, oppression and a society which exhibits far greater inequality than that of the liberal democracies. We have the examples of China, Cuba, North Korea and Venezuela in front of us, let alone the memory of the twentieth century, but for some the penny hasn’t still dropped. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
    Of course it is not just conservatism which is mischaracterized by Marxists and their fellow travelers. For any accusation of the West being “inherently racist, sexist, heteronormative and guilty of oppressing and marginalising ‘the other’”, communist countries exhibit far worse examples. China is oppressing its ethnic minorities to the point of genocide. There are no female heads of state in any of the current communist regimes, nor were there in the USSR or the Warsaw Pact countries. Try being anything other than heteronormative or a member of ‘the other’ in China or North Korea and see what happens.
    Naturally none of this is admitted by the Left, whose philosophy relies on at best hiding the truth and at worst on outright lying. We see this in a range of modern Marxist movements from BLM, where the facts show that Black on Black shootings in the US claim far more Black lives that the few killed by US police, to the ‘Stolen Generation’ where the evidence and documentation overwhelmingly indicates that where children were removed from both black and white families, its was to protect those children from neglect or worse.
    Since Lenin, Marxism has been about the violent seizure of power by an unrepresentative few. This is as true of China, Cuba and North Korea as it was in Russia in 1917. Persuading people that this would lead to their benefit has always required lies and always will. Why do so many North Koreans and Cubans go to such extreme lengths to escape Marxism? Will Black communities in the US be better off with a defunded police force? The answers to these questions should be obvious to anyone, except apparently those who want to give Marxism just one more try.

  • Patrick McCauley says:

    Small government = big individual; big government = small individual; sackable teachers are an essential ingredient of the Liberal pursuit of happiness and freedom … and they should be sacked regularly and openly – with great fanfare – think of the trial of Socrates …

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    To expand on one of my questions above, if Western civilization is so terrible, why do so many want to move into western societies? Why is the movement of people so much towards the West rather than away from it? Why do almost all of those migrants stay in the West once they get there?

  • STD says:

    Ian Mackenzie. Could it be that the rewards of freedom are embedded in an individuals right to productivity and wealth, which ultimately provides for good welfare and healthcare systems which in turn provide people’s lives with certainty and happiness which satisfy that basic human need. Better survival outcomes.

  • Ian MacKenzie says:

    STD, I’m sure you’re right that provision of basic needs is a factor in the popularity of the West as a migrant destination. The West’s material advantage results from the science of the Enlightenment and consequent Industrial Revolution. The question then becomes why did those two phenomena occur in the West and not elsewhere.
    I believe that the other significant factors in the West’s popularity are stability and opportunity. In these the rule of law and democracy are crucial, both derived ultimately in their current form from Christianity, which explain why they were developed in the West and not elsewhere.

  • gary@erko says:

    John Howard was reputed to have said, “A conservative doesn’t think their grandparents were less moral than themselves today”. What they did was considered the right way in their time. What we do today contains just as many flaws as the past, that we, like they, are unable to recognise. This resounds in some way with the commandment to honour your parents “so your days may be long”, so your life will fulfil the stream of the generations who preceded you. “In the land” which you have – that’s the region of your people, the home land of your culture. The commandments weren’t handed to an individual – this is a formula for a community, for a society. It’s one of the few positive commandments – the few “thou shall”, and the only one with an earthly and human context and naming the positive outcome if it’s respected.

  • padraic says:

    Ian, the following comment of yours is accurate – ” I believe that the other significant factors in the West’s popularity are stability and opportunity. In these the rule of law and democracy are crucial” Some years back I helped out in a social survey in which we asked passers -by questions related to living in Australia. One of the questions was “What do you like about living in Australia?” Answers varied but the best one I got was from a young woman refugee from Sierra Leone who had fled the violence there. Her answer to the question was “Everything works”. It hit me then how much we take for granted in this wonderful country and I hope never to see the nightmare future pursued by Left fanatics.

  • STD says:

    The left is dystopian -unlike utopian .Day zero or the Cartesian point distortion of truth or history, the truth is history!
    Australian idiom ,the left wouldn’t know the truth if it bit em on the bottom- pig’s backside , bottom, bum, or should it be derrière or could it be even buttock- take your pick only time will tell – I hear your Macquarie scythe .

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