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Conservatives and revolution

Conservatives are all at sea in a revolutionary situation, with particular reference to the Russian Revolution—conservatives come undone when a revolution starts.

To understand why this is the case, pull up a clip that features the Russian emigre writer Vladimir Nabokov. Best known for the risque Lolita, Nabokov was from the Russian ancien regime—he grew up in an emigre world where former Tsarist cavalry officers would drive taxis in Paris and former debutants eked out a living as a governess with their little Pekingese lap dogs.

Nabokov was a very superior man, a man who would disdain blousy American housewives and the vulgar music to which they pushed their trolleys up and down the supermarket aisles. It is difficult to convey Nabokov’s hauter in words—a characteristic expression might be, “Shakespeare was not a significant writer.” Nabokov would dismiss “greats of world literature” as “trash” or, perhaps, in deprecatory condescension, “a minor figure”.

He lived in a Swiss hotel (impersonal), played chess, and remained a human iceberg—no democratic sociability for him; no “How’s it going, mate?”. “Mate—one is not one’s mate, most certainly not in the sense of the act of sexual reproduction in the human species. And I fail to see in what other sense that word would be applied.”

Nabokov was a classical liberal. His father, a politician in the Tsarist regime’s terminal phase, was also a classical liberal. This was what Russian liberals were like under the ancien regime—now imagine what a Russian conservative would be like under those conditions. We’re talking about people who would have a soldier flogged for a speck of dirt under the fingernails and not give it a second thought—it was just “the done thing”, like washing your hands after using the lavatory.

Conservatives are usually right in their general stance. Sudden social and political change is unrealistic and will result in unforeseen negative consequences. It is best to be cautious. The best thing to do in any situation is usually nothing—trust whatever has worked in the past, trust the old ways. This is all fine until an actual revolution occurs—at that point conservatives are hamstrung by their own convictions.

To return to the Russian Revolution, the subsequent civil war in particular, what you will find is that the conservative forces in that conflict had great strength—and yet they lost. And they lost because their strength became a weakness: their hauter and natural authority blinded them to the actual situation. Hence it seemed “obvious” that the peasant rabble would fall apart—peasants couldn’t govern, the Provisional Government fell and the Bolsheviks would fall as quickly. The inference was not foolish but it was given too much weight due to assumed superiority.

In the meantime, the White forces squabbled with each other and refused to make obvious concessions to, for example, national aspirations because to do so would undermine “the Russian Empire” (which they had not yet cognized did not, in fact, exist anymore). Hindsight is 20/20 and it’s easy for us to say that everything should have been done to overthrow the Bolsheviks—yet the Whites were very hidebound in their views.

To transfer the same situation to contemporary America—another country that seems set for political upheaval—it would be the case that conservatives would continue to trust “the Supreme Court” and “the Constitution” even if these were in enemy hands or dissolved for practical purposes (some would argue this has already happened, but I mean in a more complete way than today—a situation where something akin to the Floyd riots had gone on for over six months).

Conservatives are more realistic than the left but they are only realistic by default. Their realism comes from their adherence to traditions and “what is”—to a sentimental attachment to “the Constitution” or “the Empire”. In stable conditions the situation is satisfactory, but if these systems are in collapse—or about to collapse—conservatives cannot adjust to the reality because they are ultimately “faith-based”. It gives them a warm glow to think about Washington or a bewhiskered British sea captain (“By Gawd, it was bloody marvellous”)—yet that is not reality.

It should also be considered that when an event like the Russian Revolution takes place it means the elites were decadent—and that includes conservatives. So although they might say and think “the right things” it doesn’t mean they themselves do them or still embody virtuous actions. Virtue is connected to effectiveness—to “life force”—and so a virtuous regime is realistic. You might admire Washington or Kitchener, but that doesn’t mean you’re like either man yourself—even if you have their biographies on your shelf next to a ten-volume life of Churchill.

So conservatives are more realistic than the left but only realistic by default, not realistic through autonomous engagement with reality. The difference is also exemplified by the contrast between Grant and Lee—on paper Lee is the more “right-wing” figure, being the very embodiment of Christian aristocracy; but he wasn’t as effective as Grant—hence Grant was virtuous in its true sense; he was effective, virile.

The right constitutes realism; and so it’s not just right-wing because you ponce about in a bow-tie like a professor in 1920 because you value “order” and “hierarchy”—the plumber who fixes pipes well in a baseball cap and sportswear is more “rightist” than that, since he’s effective and therefore virile. Decadence is larpy and in the Russian Revolution there were many people who just traded on the symbolism and self-confidence associated with empire and aristocracy when the virtue that underpinned those institutions was lost.

A figure like Brusilov—basically a White but who went to the Reds—represents a Grant-like figure in the Russian Revolution because he tried to work with reality not with airy-fairy notions about “Tsar and Empire”. He was hated for that in White circles, but he was a realistic man who tried to do the best for Russia given the circumstances and calculated that it would be best to “let the Red turn White from within”—as happened with the French Revolution and Napoleon. It is notable that Brusilov was Russia’s only effective general in WWI—he was also a rare man in the political arena who tried to work with the reality on the ground rather than being lost in sentimental abstractions or revolutionary dogma. This was because he was virtuous in the true sense.

Enoch Powell was a similar figure, he grasped that the British Empire was over in 1945 and immediately began to advocate an “England-only” policy; however, the Conservatives as a party wanted to carry on a sentimental larp about “the Empire” for another forty years (and only really gave it up in the early 1990s). Again, Powell was virtuous because he grasped the actuality on the ground and worked with it—notably, he was unpopular in the Conservative Party and eventually left it.

It is important not to be concerned if you do not agree with conservatives. Reality is elitist—there is no need to get “everyone on the same page”. As Grant observed, you should concentrate on what you’re doing not what the enemy is doing (or, I would add, your “friends”). Hence, for example, if you are nationalist who just wants to live in a racially homogenous society concentrate on that goal—it doesn’t matter if conservatives, traditional Catholics, or whatever “rightist” groups agree with you or not. You just have to keep on target within the parameters set by reality—those other groups, the wider “right”, will fall in behind you if you succeed anyway. History is made by small determined groups—ultimately individuals—that keep on target in a realistic way. All ideas—whether Marxist, liberal, or conservative—interfere with reality to a certain degree, conservative ideas do so less often than others but are not immune from deviation from reality. Hence the struggle is always to come back down to earth.


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