Conservatism

On Tory Blind Spots

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Several months ago [REASON, August 1976], there appeared in these pages a debate between Arthur Shenfield and David Friedman on the interesting question of abolition of the State. Welcome in itself, it happens also to provide occasion, I think, for briefly examining a few points of importance in distinguishing libertarians from conservatives like Mr. Shenfield. This occurs because Shenfield, in the course of his analysis, permits himself some scathing remarks on the old communist anarchists—comments which, first of all, as a matter of justice ought not to go unchallenged, and second, are deeply revealing of the distorted perspectives of the "conservative mind."

Naturally, it is no news that, as Shenfield tells us, writers like Bakunin, Kropotkin, and Proudhon were usually confused and downright ignorant about economic science (but not demonstrably more so than many conservatives, such as Cardinal Newman, who once termed the study of political economy a "proximate occasion for sin"). On the other hand, however, their sociological analyses were often brilliant. There is, for instance, Proudhon's distinction within "the" bourgeoisie between the segment that lives from its own efforts on the market and the segment that lives from its close alliance with government. And there is Bakunin's prophecy, crowning his pioneering attacks on Marxism, that there will arise a "new class" of intellectuals, managers, and bureaucratic parasites of all kinds who will inherit the earth, come the Marxist Revolution—the starting point for all "New Class" interpretations of Marxist revolutionary movements and regimes as well as (which is often forgotten, although Bakunin intended it) of all social-democratic, State-socialist regimes. Nonetheless, it is true that these early anarchists—and their current successors, such as Murray Bookchin—as a rule were childishly wrong concerning economic principles. Does that justify Shenfield's strictures against them, though?

Shenfield sets his attack on the older anarchists in the framework of an onslaught on "utopianism"—that dream, as he puts it, of "a perfect world in which all men love each other and in which Adam's problems after the expulsion from Eden melt away." Such dreams Shenfield characterizes as "the effluvia of sick minds"—a bit strong I would say, for what would we then have to call all the apologias for slavery, monarchy, nationalism, imperialism, and the dog-like adoration of tradition that fill the history of political thought? But let that pass for the moment—so long as Shenfield is prepared to extend his "sick minds" interpretation to the origin of utopianism in the Christian idea of the Millennium and specifically the prophecies of the Book of Revelation, which speaks of a new world, "where God will wipe away every tear," one which will be, well, utopianly perfect. Typically, Tory writers like Shenfield do not mean to include that in their blistering, ironic condemnations of "utopianism." The line rather is that it was somehow fine to anticipate a perfect supernatural order; the fatal flaw lay in trying to bring that perfect order down to earth, and to make it a reality by natural revolutionary means. Just why the idle fantasy is assumed to be preferable to the practical effort is never made clear.

Is it "sick" to be "utopian"? The use of a term such as "sick" in a political context in a post-Szaszian age is, to say the least, naive; so let us translate it in this fashion: Is it perverse, or wicked, or very silly to be "utopian"? Well, it all depends on how rigorously one wants to understand the term "a perfect world." The idea of a Garden of Eden world obviously is silly and probably does not even make sense. But surely the world could be made much, much better than we have known it. What reason have we to doubt that human life could be made enormously richer in satisfaction, accomplishment, beauty, and dignity than men and women have ever experienced? The 19th century, after all, was a period of great progress in virtually every respect. If things go right, and if somehow we could get a glimpse of mankind a thousand, or five thousand (or a million?) years from now, might not we who live in the 20th century say, "Yes, this has to be a perfect world—this is utopia." What exactly are the limits drawn by nature to a progressive evolution whose one indispensable condition, as Humboldt wrote, is freedom?

Shenfield goes on to allow himself some superficial and offensive comments on the old anarchists for which he must definitely be called to account. "Some" of them were fools, he tells us, but "many" were of "profoundly evil propensities" and given to "mindless violence." One is reminded of Lenin's response when the French and British ambassadors protested some Bolshevik atrocities: "And this complaint comes from the gentlemen who have just sent 13,000,000 men to their deaths!" If Nicola Sacco is to be referred to as "profoundly evil" what words will be left to describe, say, the Romanovs, who for centuries lived according to the belief that the peoples of Russia came and went in generations whose only meaning was to die in extending the Imperial domains to the ends of the earth? Or Leopold II of Belgium, who turned the Congo into one vast slave plantation? Or all the imperialist generals, admirals, and lying, murdering politicos whose monuments litter the cities of England—for instance. Sir Winston Churchill?

Here I think we have the nub of the difference between conservatives and libertarians that I mentioned earlier. Tory writers such as Shenfield speak as if the State and the sickening violence and degradation it has caused since its inception were somehow a datum of the Cosmos. Our attention, they feel, should never be excited by this massive, systematic, and institutionalized violence. Instead, it is the occasional wasting of a Tsar, or chief of the secret police, or American President, that should set us to fearing and trembling. (In this spirit, Shenfield berates Murray Rothbard for allying himself during the Viet Nam war with "certain elements of the New Left" and for not overly disapproving of "the violence of the anti-war demonstrators.") But on this the old anarchists saw more clearly than all but a very few; and it is from them, and not from the Tories with their incredibly conventional blinders, that libertarians should learn.

Finally, there is the astonishing personal attack on the "hateful" Tolstoy for "hating and terrorizing all around him." Here the strange vindictiveness of Shenfield's treatment of the old anarchists is fully unmasked. For what could be more humanly comprehensible—although, of course, regrettable—than that a creative genius of world-historical proportions should feel a certain resentment and rage at the lack of understanding in his milieu, at the petty vexations daily imposed on him (as he sees it) by utterly mediocre minds? Really, this is too foolish, having to defend Tolstoy in this way, but…if Shenfield wants to see how the same situation could occur with a man who happened not to be an anarchist (but only a classical liberal), he might pick up a biography of Beethoven.

Ralph Raico teaches intellectual history at the State University of New York College at Buffalo.

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