• Josh Lewis

How does a Conservative differ from a Radical? Part 5 (Burn it Down!)

I began this series suggesting that radicalism was the closest we could come to reaching conservatism’s polar opposite. In fact, the entire conservative tradition that began with Edmund Burke’s critique of the radical revolutionaries in his day might be thought of as a sort of continuation of Burke’s efforts. Everywhere radicals go, you can be sure conservatives will be in the midst warning of the dangers of their ideological designs. To modify William F. Buckley’s famous descriptor, the conservative stands athwart the radical’s schemes, yelling “Stop!”

While we discussed last week how there may be instances where both the conservative and radical agree change is warranted, even in these rare circumstances they are likely to disagree sharply on the methods or end-goals of change. In that post I shared how Burke drew a distinction between change (a tool the radical uses to tear apart or burn down the structure in place) and reformation (the conservative’s preferred practice of altering where needed while leaving the integrity of the structure intact). A couple of centuries later, Irving Kristol made a similar observation in drawing a distinction between a rebellion and a revolution. Kristol describes a rebellion as involving:

“…a passionate rejection of the status quo—its institutions and the way of life associated with these institutions. It rejects everything that exists because it wishes to create everything anew—a new social order, a new set of economic arrangements, a new political entity, a new kind of human being. It aims to solve not merely the political problem of the particular political community, at that particular moment, but every other problem that vexes humanity.”

The French Revolution had been referenced by conservatives for decades as the archetype of such a rebellion against things as they were. But the Twentieth Century would provide even more startling exemplars in the forms of the fascist and communist revolutionaries who wished to smash all that had come before to clear the way for their New Order or promised workers’ paradise.

I am not trying to suggest that radicals are Nazis. I mean only that the disposition of the radical is bent on destruction—however innocently that destruction may be marketed—and that destruction opens the door for tyranny. The blog Philosophical Conservatism explains the usefulness of radicalism’s mindset to the tyrant thusly:

“What truly makes a lot of radical thought dangerous is that it only knows what it hates in society, and generally does not have a clear concept of what it intends to put in its place. When people are zealously charging forward at high speeds with no real sense of where they will end up, they can end up in the worst of places. This mentality is of great value to the authoritarian; what he desires above all is flaming passion with no clarity or particular direction. This allows him to lead them wherever he wills. In other words, it leads to unbridled power. Only clear intentions can rein in power.”

Republican Virtues and Radical Vices

Kristol contrasts these violent, tyrannical, and often failed radical revolutions of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to the American Revolution of the eighteenth century. And Kristol further credits the steady handedness of the American Founding Fathers with steering the people away from a mob mentality of a rebellion into a productive revolution. “A mob is not simply a physical presence but also, and above everything else, a state of mind,” continues Kristol, “It is, to be precise, that state of mind which lacks all those qualities that, in the opinion of the Founding Fathers, added up to republican morality: steadiness of character, deliberativeness of mind, and a mild predisposition to subordinate one’s own special interests to the public interest.”

None of these traits sound characteristic of the true radical. These republican virtues are mere vices that stand in the way of the radical’s aims. To be a radical is to act, not to contemplate, compromise, or—above all—wait. Yuval Levin observed that Burke was well aware of the radical’s worldview leading to “radical” action. “Burke argues that the failure to see or pursue a middle ground is not an oversight but a prominent feature of the radical worldview of the revolutionaries…Because [radicals] pursue the vindication of a principle, they cannot stop short of total success.” The conservative may yell “stop!” to the radical until he’s blue in the face—but the radical does not stop. Because stopping is more than failure; it’s downright unrighteous.

Sadly, when someone is fully persuaded their cause is “right” they can justify doing an awful lot of wrong. The rebellious mob mentality of the radical has resorted to thievery, terrorism, genocide, and the annihilation of competition all in the name of their righteous cause. “Revolutions are favorable to confiscation; and it is impossible to know under what obnoxious names the next confiscations will be authorized,” wrote Burke as he described the sad state of affairs of French revolutionaries plundering the treasurers of Church and State in the name of liberté.

“The fresh ruins of France,” lamented Burke, “which shock our feelings wherever we can turn our eyes, are not the devastation of civil war; they are the sad but instructive monuments of rash and ignorant counsel in time of profound peace.” The conservative finds many worthy and admirably opponents in the public square. But that is primarily because they are all arguing in the public square and not standing just outside trying to light it on fire. Once the rage of the radical is fully unleashed, carnage will ensue. “Rage and frenzy will pull down more in half an hour, than prudence, deliberation, and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”

And rage is the proper way to put it. The mob mentality seizes the otherwise functioning faculties of the radical as they become focused on tearing things apart and lose sight of why they thought it was necessary to do so in the first place. Because radicalism is so focused on the act of change, they easily lose sight of the long-term implications of their destruction. “Plots, massacres, assassinations, seem to some people a trivial price for obtaining a revolution,” Burke reprimanded, “A cheap, bloodless reformation, a guiltless liberty, appear flat and vapid to their taste. There must be a great change of scene; there must be a magnificent stage effect; there must be a grand spectacle to rouse the imagination.” The enraged radical is less interested in “justice” than the punitive weapons employed to bring about justice.

When Revolutions Eat the Revolutionaries

One of the grave historical ironies of radical revolutions are their tendencies to eat their own. For once the long-developed institutions and structures that hold society in check are torn apart, there’s often nothing left to protect the revolutionaries themselves from the unleashed mob. Once the plundering and pillaging begins, it can be hard to put a stop to the process when some of the radicals believe their ends have been achieved. Encouraging disloyalty to those in charge doesn’t engender fidelity to the new masters. Which is yet another reason radical revolution often ends in tyranny: only the tyrant can hold on to power when everything else has been destroyed.

“It is of infinite caution that any man ought to venture upon pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purposes of society, or on building it up again, without having models and patterns of approved utility before his eyes,” Burke concludes, “Revolution will be the very last resource of the thinking and the good.” Burke, of course, is using the term “revolution” in the same sense Kristol describes a “rebellion”. They are both echoing what may sound blatantly obvious when shorn of all the prattling of radical rhetoric: if the house is in need of repair you don’t improve the situation by burning it to the ground. “Men cannot improve a society by setting fire to it,” echoed Russell Kirk, “they must seek out its old virtues, and bring them back into the light.”

If the conservative is unsuccessful at thwarting the radical, their next move is to set about the difficult but necessary task of sorting through the charred remains scattered among the ashes to slowly rebuild. And, for posterity’s sake, to gently remind the radicals that things would have been better had they not set the house on fire in the first place.