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How to Be a Non-Liberal, Anti-Socialist Conservative
Ro ger Scruto n

by Roger Scruton Post-war intellectuals have inherited two major systems of political thought with which to satisf y their lust f or doctrine: liberalism and socialism. It is testimony to the persistence of the dichotomizing f rame of mind that, even in Eastern Europe, the “world conf lict” that endured f or seventy years was f requently seen in terms of the opposition between these systems. And because they are systems, it is of ten supposed that they are organically unif ied—that you cannot embrace any part of one of them without embracing the whole of it. But let it be said at the outset, that, f rom the standpoint of our present predicament, nothing is more obvious about these systems than the f act that they are, in their presuppositions, substantially the Ro g e r Sc ruto n same. Each of them proposes a description of our condition, and an ideal solution to it, in terms which are secular, abstract, universal, and egalitarian. Each sees the world in “desacralized” terms, in terms which, in truth, correspond to no lasting common human experience, but only to the cold skeletal paradigms that haunt the brains of intellectuals. Each is abstract, even when it pretends to a view of human history. Its history, like its philosophy, is detached f rom the concrete circumstance of human agency, and, indeed, in the case of Marxism, goes so f ar as to deny the ef f icacy of human agency, pref erring to see the world asa conf luence of impersonal f orces. T he ideas whereby men live and f ind their local identity—ideas of allegiance, of country or nation, of religion and obligation—all these are, f or the socialist, mere ideology, and f or the liberal, matters of “private” choice, to be respected by the state only because they cannot truly matter to the state.Only in a f ew places in Europe and America can a person call himself a conservative and expect to be taken seriously. T he f irst task of conservatism, theref ore, is to create a language in which “conservative” is no longer a term of abuse. T his task is part of another, and larger, enterprise: that of the purif ication of language f rom the insidious sloganizing which has taken hold of it. T his is not a simple enterprise. Indeed, it is, in one sense, the whole of politics. As the communists realized f rom the beginning, to control language is to control thought—not actual thought, but the possibilities of thought. It is partly through the successf ul ef f orts of the communists—aided, of course, by a world war which they did not a little to precipitate—that our parents thought in terms of elementary dichotomies. Lef t-Right, Communist-f ascist, socialist-capitalist, and so on. Such were the “terms of debate” that we inherited. To the extent that you are not “on the Lef t,” they implied, then to that extent are you “on the Right”; if not a Communist, then so much nearer f ascism; if not a socialist, then an advocate of “capitalism,” as an economic and political system. If there is a basic dichotomy that presently conf ronts us, it is between us—the inheritors of what remains of Western civilization and Western political thinking—and the purveyors of dichotomies. T here is no such opposition as that between Lef t and Right, or that between communism and f ascism. T here is simply an eternal alliance—although an “alliance of the unjust” who are always ready to violate the terms that bind them—between those who think in terms of dichotomies and labels. T heirs is the new style of politics, the science which has in truth replaced “politics” as it has ever been known. T heirs is a world of “f orces” and “movements”; the world perceived by these inf antile minds is in a constant state of turmoil and conf lict, advancing now to the Lef t, now to the Right, in accordance with the half -baked predictions of this or that theorist of man’s social destiny. Most of all, the dichotomizing mind has need of a system. It seeks f or the theoretical statement of man’s social and political condition, in terms of which to derive a doctrine that will answer to every material circumstance.

privilege. I ref er to the idea of legitimacy. but also attempts to reconcile our political existence with the elementary f reedoms that are constantly threatened by it. the right of political command. its war with reality. and f inal. the intellectual mind has developed an annihilating language with which to describe it. and should theref ore be equal in all that af f ects their social and political standing. T he abstract equality of the socialist and the liberal has no place in this world. But abstract law is. For the liberal. All political realities are described a-historically. not by universal aspirations but by local attachments. It is not secular but spiritual. and should theref ore be equal in all that is granted to them f or the satisf action of their needs. has been the most damaging. can legality be regarded as an alternative to—rather than as a particular realization of —legitimacy. and not egalitarian but f raught with diversity. liberalism remains. T his given political existence def ies the f our axioms of liberalism and socialism.” It is even seen as a kind of socialism. inequality. especially by French intellectuals f or whom nothing is good which cannot be given a socialist name. but not a reality in itself . But—whatever its worth as a philosophical system. f rom which the living skin has been picked away. But this actual. and indeed to win. To neither system is it thinkable that men live. If we are to return to reality. social world. I say that it is spiritual. T he f irst. as though they could be established anywhere. in the last analysis. and power. precisely because. without lasting f orce. they are equal in their rights. T he world of the socialist and the world of the liberal are like dead skeletons. In order to justif y. between “traditional” and “legal-rational” modes of authority. an international liberalism is the unstated tendency of the liberal. if it is to f lourish. behind it. at any time. condemnation of communism is that it has dismissed the whole idea of legitimacy with a cavernous laugh. that—due. not by a “solidarity” that stretches across the globe f rom end to end. and could be realized only by the assertion of controls so massive as to destroy themselves. He is born into a world that calls on him f or sacrif ice. the body of man’s given political existence. For the socialist. however.Each system is also universal. no more than that—a constant corrective to the given reality. living. It is a shadow. f or me. and it must. whose existence depends upon the massive body which obstructs that light. a thousand particularities lie hidden. as a system of abstractions. quite simply. and the customs that provide the basis of legitimacy. distribute its lif e variously and unequally about its parts. What conf ers this right over a people? Some would say their “choice. a vital thing. and that promises him obscure rewards. T his world is concrete—it cannot be described in the abstract unhistorical language of the socialist or liberal theorist without removing the skin of signif icance that renders it perceivable. And this right includes the exercise of law. And so it should be. is usef ul to us. some of whose ideas must eventually be incorporated into any philosophical theory of legitimate government. T he example is minatory. not universal but particular. f or that reason. T hus the peculiarly Polish phenomenon of “Solidarity” is squeezed into the abstract f orms dictated by the theory of “liberal democracy. I suppose to Weber —between legitimacy and legality. f or I believe that the world as man understands it—the Lebenswelt—is given to him in terms which bear the indelible imprint of obligations that surpass his understanding. One generality. we must search f or a language that is scrupulous towards the human world. It is not my concern to argue with the liberal. For it is based in a philosophy that not only respects the reality of human agency. I must say at once that I have more sympathy f or the liberal than f or the socialist position. egalitarian. liberals have tried to provide an alternative idea of legitimacy—one with which to challenge the historical entitlements that were to be extinguished by the triumph of their system.” But this idea overlooks the f act that we . not abstract but concrete. An international socialism is the stated ideal of most socialists. Among the many dichotomies that have pulverized the modern intelligence. Legitimacy is. I wish only to suggest a non-liberal alternative. Finally—and the importance of this should never be underestimated—both socialism and liberalism are. is a particular thing. but by obligations that are understood in terms which separate men f rom most of their f ellows—in terms such as national history. religion. cast by the light of reason. Only if law is misunderstood. men are equal in their needs. To their immense credit. that will be f ree f rom the contagion of theory. language. T hey both suppose all men to be equal in every respect relevant to their political advantage.

It is given to us. Hence. are entirely without meaning f or us. which is the belief that politics involves a choice of systems. what has gone wrong? And it dreams of a world in which an abstract ideal of justice will be made reality. +++ Itis worth pausing to mention another. but moral equality. and into the experience of ourselves as parts of a larger whole. My basic debt to the world is not one of justice but of piety. like the erstwhile Communist intelligentsia in the East. precisely because it believes that it can go right—precisely because it sees politics asa means to an end. the total inability of liberalism to provide a solution to those who are af f licted by totalitarian illegitimacy. namely. and to work toward the re-establishment of legitimate government in a world that has been swept bare by intellectual abstractions. what leads people to accept the “choice” that is thrust upon them by their f ellows. Who can doubt the appeal of that idea? But it neglects the one. and the end is equality—not. and that. to experiment with f reedom. inescapable f act. into a kind of intellectual experiment. the only way to oppose the totalitarian is by slow. at last. an equality of “rights. responsible actions. still popular among lef t-wing intellectuals in the West. But this attachment to place and people is not chosen: it is not the outcome of some liberal ref lection on the rights of man. if not a prior sense that they are bound together in a legitimate order? T he task f or the conservative is to f ind the grounds of political existence concretely. as a means to an end.” Democracy is the necessary result of this liberal ideal. in the very texture of our social existence. For only in relation to my given situation can I f orm those values and social perceptions that give me strength. I cannot see my own lif e as the liberal wishes to see political lif e. a common culture. Seeing the unhappiness of man it asks. and these choices concern only the most f ortuitous of things. and begun to think of them as “our own. or f or a Falkland Islander that he cannot be legitimately governed f rom Buenos Aires. and rival.” T his thought expresses precisely the major political danger of our times. I am born into a situation that I did not create. has persistently ref used to accept the given-ness of human existence. whose bedrock is the given obligations f rom which our social identities are f ormed. and which settle f or a Pole that he cannot be governed f rom Moscow. to people united by their sense of a common destiny. we must attempt to endorse the unchosen obligations that conf er on us our political identity. nor is it conceived in the experimental spirit that is so important to the socialist program. T here is a particular view. generality that has been of some service to the lef t-liberal . Our ultimate model f or a legitimate order is one that is given historically. It has made lif e. and in particular political lif e. T he liberal intelligentsia in the West.” T he truth is that socialism is wrong. Nor can I regard my obligations as created entirely by my f ree. It looks everywhere f or the single solution that will resolve conf licts and restore harmony everywhere. material equality. it is true. Any genuine account of our sentiments of legitimacy must begin f rom the recognition that piety precedes justice. Not to recognize the priority of this experience is to concede the major premise of totalitarian thinking. but an end in itself . whether on the North Pole or at the Equator. until we have attached ourselves to a place and people. that politics is a means to an end. It is f ounded on legitimacy. steady democratization of the social order. and the superstition of equality. if we are to rediscover the roots of political order. so that one system may “go wrong” while another “goes right.have only the crudest instruments whereby choices are measured. We are born into the obligations of the f amily. Politics is a manner of social existence. both in our lives and in our thinking. T he liberal begins f rom the same assumption as the totalitarian. Hence.” the claims of justice. since democracy is the f inal realization of political equality. and legitimacy resides in our sense that we are made by our inheritance. that the Soviet system was “socialism gone wrong. and it is only when I recognize this f act that I can be truly myself . Besides. I cannot see my own lif e as an experiment. which is that political existence is nothing but a long term experiment. and a common source of the values that govern their lives. and am encumbered f rom birth with obligations that are not of my own devising. For the liberal. Politics is a f orm of association which is not a means to an end.

It is made particular and immediate in language. It is a given historical reality. it would be authority f or nothing. (iv) T he existence of autonomous institutions.” the nation is not an abstraction. Nobody can speak f or anyone. and to f ind a basis f or political obligation that looks only to the present and the f uture. they denote the separation of the state (which isthe locus of legitimate authority) f rom those who hold power by virtue of the state. is there not another source of legitimacy—one that does not require the support of those pious obligations that seem to commit us to so much on the basis of so little? Is there not a legitimacy to be f ound in democracy. To put it more directly. our continent. however. but rather constitutional limitation. and also articulating. even when it is the act of an of f icial —even when it is an act in the name of the sovereign power. the “voice of the people. T his. which we rightly associate with British and American democracy. He wishes to redeem himself f rom his “outsideness.intellectual in our time. however. It is also an indispensable part of any f ully elaborated legitimacy. +++ But surely. (vi) Legitimate opposition: in other words. which oppose the government.” Unf ortunately. even by those—and that includes most of us now— who hesitate to adopt the straightf orward nationalism that emerged f rom the Congress of Vienna and which at f irst pacif ied. the right to f orm parties. T hose who wield power can be judged in terms of the very of f ices that they hold. Indeed. that will one day replace the appeal to piety? T hat is a large question. It contains within itself the intimation of a legitimate order. custom. T he idea is usually combined with the f antasy that the intellectual has some peculiar f aculty of hearing. but which existed bef ore democracy. Political theorists are f amiliar. but subsequently destroyed. should always be remembered. and the right to contend openly f or power. and may f ind expression. T his is the idea of the “people. Should we wait until all the paradoxes of social choice have been resolved bef ore f ormulating our political commitments? Second. But it is worth summarizing their import. since it would have no concrete basis on which to build its legitimacy. and the f ree association that makes them possible. and this is not the place to discuss them in detail. not democracy. and could be established elsewhere without its aid. what people have appreciated in democracy is not periodic collective choice—f or what is so estimable in the f act that the ignorant majority every now and then chooses to be guided by a new party. “democracy” is a disputed term. T hese virtues are the f ollowing: (i) Limited power: no one can exercise unlimited power when his projects stand to be extinguished by an election. he succeeds in uniting himself not with society. Nobody can speak f or the people. religion. with those matters. those six f eatures of government mean. but only with another intellectual abstraction—“the people”—designed according to impeccable theoretical requirements.” T his self -delusion. and culture. the possibility of adjudicating every act. we can see . of course. T he truth. you will say. (v) Rule of law: in other words. But two things need to be said in response to it.” as the f ount of legitimate order. which has persisted unaltered since the days of the French Revolution. precisely in order to veil the intolerable reality of everyday lif e. “T he people” does not exist. in his endeavor to wipe out the past. expresses the intellectual’s concern to be reunited with the social order f rom which his own thinking has so tragically separated him. Even if it did exist. First. Taken together. (ii) Constitutional government: but what upholds the constitution? (iii) Justif ication by consent. I believe. strives to be uttered. now on those. now on these lips. T his is surely an essential part of true political order. Unlike “the people. and nobody knows quite what it means or quite how to secure it. toward goals that it understands no better than it understood the goals of the previous one? What is appreciated are certain political virtues. and to publish opinions.

legitimacy in the modern state as composed of two parts: a root. f or instance. which is the sovereign state. in short. and procedures ref lect something that is truly “ours. and in a manner that makes it answerable to those who may suf f er f rom its exercise. T his respect is derived f rom the sense that these powers. T his state shows the true f lowering of a “civil society”—a public lif e that is open.) If one looks back to the French Revolution. and a tree which grows f rom that root. while removing the only instrument—judicial independence—that could make them into genuine laws. Here lies the authority of the actual: that it is seen to contain within itself the residue of the allegiance which def ines my place. and constitutes a genuine attempt to resolve them.” something that grows f rom the social bond that def ines our condition. sustain the six political virtues that I have listed. For concrete law to exist in any f orm. f ounded in precedents and authorities. and imbued with an instinctive legality. T here are two major threats to concrete law. All such law is f atally f lawed: the Communist Party rested its entire claim to legality in the generation of such laws. It suf f ices to do as the Jacobins did—to abolish the judiciary. f or the powers and privileges that are actually enjoyed. and already subject to the harsh discipline of the actual. And once there is judicial independence there is all that anyone has reasonably aspired to under the banner of “the rights of man. which is the pious attachment that draws people together into a single political entity. But liberal legality is an abstract legality. in light of the particular circumstances that are his. But it can also destroy them. But its destruction is made possible. +++ What now is true legality? I have already hinted at a distinction between abstract and concrete law. one sees just how easy it is f or the doctrine of “human rights” to become an instrument of the most appalling tyranny. law repeatedly made and re-made in response to the half -baked ideas of politicians and their advisors. It is this upper. not abstractly. Liberalism has always appreciated the importance of legality. rather than to dictate an intellectually satisf ying solution which may be unacceptable to the parties. f or procedures. without the judicial process that will uphold them? And besides. T he second threat is the prolif eration of statute law—of law by decree. and which is hinted at in the question that I have added to number (ii): authority. rather than military injunctions.” For there is the assurance that justice may be done. In this state.” What value are human rights. For all of them depend on the one thing that democracy cannot provide. . but in his particular case. in the interests of an “abstract” justice—an “equality” of reward— which must inevitably conf lict with the concrete circumstances of human existence. not so much by the elimination of democracy. as by the stif ling of the spontaneous source of legitimate sentiment f rom which it f eeds. What prompts people to accept and be bound by the results of a democratic election. Democracy can. gives rise to the “public spirit” that has so signally vanished f rom the institutions of government in much of modern Europe? Surely it is respect—f orinstitutions. of course. and replace it by “people’s courts. or by the limitations embodied in an of f ice? What. concerned with the promotion of a purely philosophical idea of “human rights. does one not also give to one’s enemy another bastion against the recognition of his illegitimacy? Is it not possible f or him to say that he upholds human rights—only dif f erent rights? (T he right to work. T his kind of law encapsulates the true source of legal authority. T his was accomplished by the Communist Party. in response to the concrete problems that come bef ore them. there must be judicial independence. or a right to a stake in the means of production. in the name of the Rights of Man. in resting one’s f aith in this beguiling abstraction. and which are perhaps even uniquely his. and in which principles emerge only slowly. dignif ied. and have implied that only the latter can truly f ill the vacuum of legitimacy that presently lies bef ore us. One is the abolition of judicial independence. or by the existing law. whatever the power that seeks to extinguish it. bears the stamp of an historical order. power is held under conditions that limit it. ordered by the principles that I have advocated. privileges. Concrete law is exemplif ied at its best in the English tradition of common law—law made by judges. Any law that is the upshot of serious judicial reasoning. which is the plaintif f ’s belief that justice will be done. Such legality grows f rom and expresses the legitimacy that is stored in its root.” T hen anything can be done to anyone. it also remains responsive to the reality of human conf licts. visible part of the legitimate polis that is so evidently destroyed by the political doctrines of our time.

Otherwise they exit unjustif ied. Roger Scruton is a visiting Professor at Oxford University. T hat. T hose are nothing but the lineaments of every actual political order. is also its strength. privileges. For there always will be inequalities: there always will be privilege and power. Since inequalities. it justif ies power. It preserves inequalities. He is a widely published author whose books include Green Philosophy: How to Think Seriously About the Planet (2012). and powers exist. Reprinted with the gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review (Spring 1993). and also uncontrolled. it conf ers privileges. it is necessary to work f or the restoration of the concrete circumstances of justice. Political Philosophy: Arguments for Conservatism (2007) and Culture Counts: Faith and Feeling in a World Besieged (2007). it is right that they should coexist with the law that might justif y them. theref ore. Books by Roger Scruton may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Relat ed Post s: Capitalism and the Moral Basis of Social Order Ordered Liberty under God T he ‘Right’ to Happiness Beauty in Exile . Essays by Roger Scruton may be found here.In response to liberalism. however. But the concrete law that I have been advocating is very unlike anything that either a socialist or a liberal would approve.

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