The Corner

Bloody Conservatism

This piece at the Chronicle of Higher Education may be one of the uniformly dumbest piece of intellectual claptrap I’ve read in a good long while. Not, surprisingly, it’s based on Adorno’s The Authoritarian Personality, a piece of pseudo-scientific rubbish which attempted to psychologize away serious arguments. The author argues that conservatism itself is inherently violent: An excerpt:

While the contrast between the true conservative and the pseudo-conservative has been drawn in different ways—the first reads Burke, the second doesn’t read; the first defends ancient liberties, the second derides them; the first seeks to limit government, the second to strengthen it—the distinction often comes down to the question of violence. Where the pseudo-conservative is captivated by war, Sullivan claims that the true conservative “wants peace and is content only with peace.” The true conservative’s endorsements of war, such as they are, are the weariest of concessions to reality. He knows that we live and love in the midst of great evil. That evil must be resisted, sometimes by violent means. All things being equal, he would like to see a world without violence. But all things are not equal, and he is not in the business of seeing the world as he’d like it to be.

The historical record suggests otherwise. Far from being saddened, burdened, or vexed by violence, conservatives have been enlivened by it. Not necessarily in a personal sense, though it’s true that many a conservative has expressed an unanticipated enthusiasm for violence. “I enjoy wars,” said Harold Macmillan, wounded three times in World War I. “Any adventure’s better than sitting in an office.” The conservative’s commitment to violence is more than psychological, however: It’s philosophical. Violence, the conservative maintains, is one of the experiences in life that makes us most feel alive, and violence, particularly warfare, is an activity that makes life, well, lively. Such arguments can be made nimbly, as in the case of Santayana, who wrote, “Only the dead have seen the end of war,” or laboriously, as in the case of Heinrich von Treitschke:

To the historian who lives in the world of will it is immediately clear that the demand for a perpetual peace is thoroughly reactionary; he sees that with war all movement, all growth, must be struck out of history. It has always been the tired, unintelligent, and enervated periods that have played with the dream of perpetual peace.

It’s difficult to find a place to even begin. So, just off the top of my head: I believe the first Gulf War was the first U.S. war of the 20th century that wasn’t launched by a Democratic president. The Soviet Union, not exactly a conservative experiment, on average expanded by something like the area of Belgium every year of its existence, through war or bloodshed. Pretty much every well-known genocidal atrocity of the 20th century was launched by forces that called themselves socialists. Not all of these movements were supported by liberals, but many were rationalized away by them. The concept of the Moral Equivalent of War, as explicated by William James (and bizarrely unmentioned in this tendentious essay), was the central organizing principle of the Progressive movement straight through the New Deal. Progressivism was thoroughly imperialistic and bloody-minded. John Dewey supported World War I because he thought it would deliver the “social benefits of war.”

Now, none of this disproves Corey Robin’s thesis, but the fact that Robin seems utterly blind to all this tells you something about his perspective. Do conservatives “love war”? Of course not. But I do think American conservatism, being more traditionally patriotic than American liberalism, is more prone to patriotic excess which liberals sometimes understandably confuse as over-fondness for war. Robin is more confused than most.


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