The American Bear


Revolutionaries of the Right: The Deep Roots of Conservative Radicalism | Corey Robin

More from Corey Robin’s must-read post on the origins of radicalism on the conservative right:

Against so powerful a force as the Jacobins, and the revolutionary order they were inaugurating throughout Europe, prudence, half-measures, compromise, and moderation—all the meats and treats of the Burkean high table—would have to be pushed aside in favor of a more bloody repast. In a series of rhetorically escalating epigrams, [Edmund] Burke called his conservative brethren to the most radical arms.

Acquiescence will not do; there must be zeal.

To destroy that enemy, by some means or other, the force opposed to it should be made to bear some analogy and resemblance to the force and spirit which that system exerts.

The madness of the wise…is better than the sobriety of fools.

Every little measure is a great errour.

These were not just rhetorical tropes; they were programmatic injunctions to the leadership of the old order, who Burke hoped would wage a counterrevolution of continental proportions against the Jacobinism plaguing Europe. (This is another great misunderstanding among the defenders of Burke: they see him as the man of the “little platoon,” of the local and the national as against the international. Not so. In face of the “general evil” that was Jacobinism, Burke wanted everyone to think of himself as a citizen of Europe. England should realize that international affairs were domestic affairs and vice versa: “Nothing in human affairs was foreign to her.” ““No citizen of Europe could be altogether an exile in any part of it.” Against those who wanted to take care of their little plots on their beloved island, Burke enjoined a great leap forward and across the English Channel.)

This was not to be an old-fashioned war of rules and constraints. Burke called for total war, of Sein oder Nichtstein, against not a country or a people but “an armed doctrine.” That doctrine had to be exterminated, for “if it can at all exist, it must finally prevail.” Against even its most infinitesimal expression, no quarter could be given: “It must be destroyed or it will destroy all of Europe.”

I have dwelled so long on Burke in part because of the stature he holds, on the right and the left, as the founder of conservatism—and as the measure against which all contemporary conservatisms are deemed insufficiently conservative. But it’s not just Burke who makes these sorts of arguments in favor of ideological zeal and against prudential restraints. Nor is it in the face of an arguably lethal threat like Jacobinism that conservatives make them.