Does the Right Need an Ideology?

Ideologies are unavoidable and, in a sense, indispensable. Irving Kristol (WSJ, July 17, 1980) stated that the Right needed an ideology if it hoped to win the battle against the Left. But a number of conservatives strongly protested the statement, having for generations depicted ideologies as incompatible with true conservatism, as being essentially leftist in character. Socialism, communism, liberalism, all are ideologies, intellectual constructions, whereas a genuine conservative contemplates nature, favors age-old traditions, time-honored institutions, the wisdom of his forbearers, and so on. Some conservatives speak of the terrible misfortunes ideologies have brought upon mankind, but the same could be said of religion. One ideology is not as good as another ideology, just as, pace some benighted souls, one religion is not as good as another. The People’s Temple supporters, the Thuggies of India, are not as good as the Quakers.

Yet missing from the conservative argument is the hard fact that man is an ideological animal. Hayek said quite correctly that no society could ever exist without an ideology. European conservative thinkers thoroughly agree with Kristol’s contention that ideology cannot be fought with non-ideology. Pick any man at random, put him on a couch, and question him methodically. Soon the dim outline of an ideology will emerge, although its profile might be low, its contours barely distinguishable, its content contradictory.

The word “ideology” was originally attached to the ‘philosophy” of Count Destutt de Tracy, whose main work was translated by Jefferson into English. The term was soon in general use. (Napoleon, who was pragmatic, erratic, and played politics by ear, once said to a group of men how had argued too logically with him: “Messieurs, you are ideologues!” They had irritated him thoroughly….

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Ideology is a coherent, logical presentation of human existence; it is intellectual, yet it also speaks to the heart. But Anglo-Americans dislike ideology. What then is the alternative?

American conservatives have carefully avoided offering to mankind an ideology—or a utopia. There are three kinds of utopias: those that cannot be realized, those that are feasible but cost a disproportionate amount of labor, suffering, and sacrifice, and those that can reasonably be established by sober reflection and honest effort. Everything that does not yet exist, that has yet to be built, instituted, or organized is, in a certain sense, an outopus. Hayek deplored the fact that (genuine) liberalism never had its utopia. Every young person contemplating and planning his or her future life is a visionary, a “utopian.”

As a result of their self-imposed inhibition, American conservatives, while brilliant in their critique of modern ills—pseudo-liberalism, socialism, communism, Jacobin democracy, egalitarianism, permissiveness, egotism, pacifism, progressivism, and goodness knows what other aberrations—have not provided the United States or the rest of the world with an alternative, with a blueprint for the future, with a picture of the desirable shape of things to come that could engender a real enthusiasm among the young.  Most Americans, I fear, would disagree with Anatole France’s statement that only extremes are bearable. In this regard I would like to cite an aphorism by Nicolas Gomez Davila (who is proud to call himself a reactionary): conservatives are (classic) liberals who have been maltreated by democracy.

There will never be Paradise on Earth, Edenism is nonsense, but there might conceivably be a better future. Yet only if we strive for it, not if we wait patiently for the total collapse of the present order, for we too might be buried under its debris. Professor James Buchanan, a noble Prize laureate and a genuine liberal has written in an article called “A Quest for a Tempered Utopia” that “it is time to again dream attainable dreams and to recover the faith that dreams can become realities. It is time to start replacing dystopia with a tempered utopia.”  This cannot be achieved through ordinary political channels, because “if all politicians are the servants of special interests, we must remain skeptical of political initiatives, even ours that seem aimed in the right direction.”

Peter Drucker, another right-of-center thinker, said back in 1939 that “ultimately we will need a new political theory and probably a very new constitutional. We shall need new concepts and a new social theory. Whether we shall get these and what they will look like, we cannot know today. But we can know that we are disenchanted with government primarily because it does not perform.” And Eliseo Vivas warned American conservatives: “I take it for granted that if the conservative movement is going to make more than a trivial and fugitive impact on the life of the nation, it will have to develop a philosophy that is systematic, that is comprehensive, that takes full and honest account of current positive knowledge and that is, therefore, no mean repetition of dried-up old chestnuts that appealed to man a generation or two ago, but have lost their flavor and freshness.”

It bears marking here that the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Church are not per se conservative. The Catholic Church is like a tree, the same trunk stands on the same spot, but the branches, twigs, and leaves change constantly–and with them the shape of the tree. The Reformers were clearly conservative, and the Eastern Church is absolutely static.

An international conservative movement cannot exist; but a rightist one can, if prompted by the universally positive meaning of the word “right.” Not a single party in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, or Austria calls itself conservative. Even some notable non-Catholics are not happy with the conservative label, men like the late Whittaker Chambers who said he did not think of himself as a conservative. “I am a man of the Right. I am a man of the Right because I mean to uphold capitalism in its American version.”  Looking over the record, it is evident that American conservatism—elegant, wise, clever in its critique, adroit and constructive in upholding eternal values—has not shown new ways, designed a new order; it has too often only produced what the French call de la litérature—although beautifully written.

This excerpt from Leftism Revisited (Regnery Gateway) is used by permission.


  • Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn

    Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn (1909–1999) was an Austrian Catholic nobleman and socio-political theorist. Describing himself as an “extreme conservative arch-liberal, Kuehnelt-Leddihn argued that majority rule in democracies is a threat to individual liberties, and declared himself a monarchist and an enemy of all forms of totalitarianism. Kuehnelt-Leddihn had an encyclopedic knowledge of the humanities. His early books The Menace of the Herd and Liberty or Equality were influential within the American conservative movement. His best-known writings appeared in National Review, where he was a columnist for 35 years.

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