Introduction from: J.J. Ray (Ed.) "Conservatism as Heresy". Sydney: A.N.Z. Book Co., 1974

What is Conservatism? A Personal Preface

John Ray

There is now an extensive body of evidence, drawn from both Australia and overseas, to suggest that what we today commonly call conservatism is an ideology most strongly held by working-class people. (See Lipset [1960], Eysenck [1971 & 1972], and Chapter 43, Part Two of this book for summaries of some of this evidence.) Except where it would be against their own economic self-interest, the workers are strongly conservative in the social policies they would support. The converse of this, of course, is that radicalism or small 'l' liberalism is very much an upper and middle class phenomenon. After all, both Marx and Engels were bourgeois intellectuals -- not workers.

'But wait a minute!' you might say, 'Everybody knows that the workers support Left wing parties. They're not conservative.' For seventy-five per cent of the workers, this is true. The political party one supports is determined very largely by perceived self- interest -- not by ideology. Ideology may be important to the party workers themselves, but, to the average voter, ideology in any form matters very little. Workers vote for radical parties because such parties offer them a better deal economically. The worker who votes for the Australian Labor Party because it offers him a free health service probably does not agree with the Party's attempts to abolish the White Australia policy. In instances where it does not affect his pocket, the worker is conservative.

By "conservative", however, one means something much more than just adherence to the status quo or defence of some orthodoxy. In fact, the origin of the term conservative in British political life was as much abusive as anything else; it was a term of some derision applied to people with a particular set of beliefs. It just happened that that particular constellation of beliefs corresponded fairly closely to what was already considered accepted practice at that time. I would claim, however, that defence of the status quo is not the basic element of what we call a conservative attitude. In fact, there can be circumstances where a conservative advocates change. A strong conservative would for instance advocate that we allow private enterprise competitors to the Post Office. Given the steadily worsening service provided by our present postal monopoly, such an innovative step may be the only chance we have to get rid of the present bureaucratic inefficiency.

From my own research into people's attitudes, I have come to the Burkean conclusion that a conservative is, above all, someone who has a cynical or hardened view of humanity. (See Chapter 54, Part Two.) Without condemning or disliking man, he believes that man is predominantly selfish and cannot be trusted always to do good. This is what does indeed make the conservative cautious about social change and this therefore is what has given rise to the view that conservatism is merely opposition to any change. By contrast, our considerate radical or small `l' liberal believes that man is inherently good and that this goodness will ensure that no matter what you do with good intentions, the desired effects will in the end be achieved. A good example of this is the classical Marxist formula: 'From each according to his ability and to each according to his need.' The radical seems to assume that the very fact that you are giving goods and services to each according to his need will itself be enough to ensure that everybody produces all that he is able to produce. If man were naturally good, this would indeed be true. Unfortunately, it seems that even the Russians have found that man needs other incentives than those provided by moral suasion. As Bob Ellis once put it rather pessimistically: 'The Left-wing intellectual believes that people are the saints they ought to be rather than the slobs they really are.' In Edmund Burke's (1790) terms, the conservative, by contrast, believes that man is 'imperfectible'.

His characteristic orientation towards man does lay the conservative open to the charge that he is "misanthropic" or even paranoid and there is no shortage of research reports that do claim to have shown that conservatives are so characterised. Such research, however, has as its basic weakness the quite false assumption that to be wary of man is to dislike man. That mankind could be loved despite its faults, just does not appear to come within the range of possibilities that our rigid and moralistic Leftists are able to entertain. The only way they themselves appear to be able to love man is by idealising him. To do so they even use such pathological Freudian devices as denial (i.e. refusing to see or recognise the humanity of what is non-ideal in man). This is summed up in a popular poster: 'I love humanity -- it's just people I can't stand.'

As is implied above, conservatives see themselves as realists, and radicals as, at least temporarily, self-deluded. A New York police chief was quoted in Newsweek recently as saying: 'A conservative is a liberal who was mugged last night: In fact realist could almost be regarded as a code-word to identify conservatives by. Many men who would avoid applying to themselves the socially undesirable label of conservative will be much more forthright in claiming to be realists.

As realists, conservatives are opposed to all sorts of political romanticism --reactionary as well as radical, right wing extremism as well as left wing extremism. Just as conservatives (e.g. Churchill) were opposed to Hitler's romantic attempt to return to ancient Germanic values and life-styles, so they are opposed to the reactionary romanticism of what the Duke of Edinburgh calls 'the stop everything brigade' -- the extremist version of the modern-day 'ecology' movement. Ever since Edmund Burke's pamphlet of 1756 on the topic, conservatives have distrusted these recurrent cycles of enthusiasm for "back to nature" movements -- of which hippies also appear to be a variety. This distrust stems from a belief that the enthusiasts have fallen victim to the delusion of trying to 'have their cake and eat it too' (i.e. they covertly or even overtly want the advantages of civilisation without at the same time being willing to accept its concomitant and necessary disadvantages) .

Perhaps because of my working class origins, I am a Burkean conservative. Edmund Burke I believe to be essentially right and relevant to modern times. I believe that the Vietnam war can be justified, that conscription can be necessary, that most ecology activists are cranks, that the twentieth century is the best century we have ever had and that the twenty-first will be even better, that economic growth is a good thing, that strikers who defy the courts should be outlawed, that the White Australia policy is defensible, that Ian Smith of Rhodesia is neither a fool nor a rogue, that our ties with the monarchy are precious and should not be reduced, that we should have more foreign investment and continued population growth. I am in favour of bigger cities and more home-units. I am in favour of States' rights and against socialism. I am against government-sponsored decentralisation and against government handouts to Aborigines. Name any opinion that is unpopular among intellectuals and I am almost sure to hold it.

And this is the point: Conservatism IS heresy. To hold views such as mine is just not the thing to do amongst "nice" middle class people or amongst intellectuals and academics. Regardless of the support views such as mine might have in a poll of the Australian population at large, one just does not expect to find such views among educated people. The educated people who form opinion and provide leadership to the community regard views like mine as hopelessly outmoded, selfish and morally wrong.

Take the White Australia policy. We have a world full of evidence that white people in general don't like black people. We have all the evidence from other countries that are culturally similar to ours -- Britain, U.S.A., South Africa, Rhodesia -- that mixed races lead to conflict. And yet people deride the White Australia policy. In Al Grassby's words, the policy is "dead". Like most conservatives, however, I just don't like the idea of race riots in Australia -- particularly when it is so unnecessary. If we want to help the poorer peoples of the earth, we can surely do it most economically by giving them the facilities in their own country that they otherwise might want to come here to seek. It is not land that the underdeveloped world needs. It is capital. Many of the densely populated areas of the world are among the most prosperous -Singapore, Holland, Denmark, Hong-Kong, Japan. The difference is that they have acquired a large amount of capital per head. What the Indian farmer needs is not new land but a steel plough instead of a wooden stick.

And what about Vietnam? Was it, as the radicals say, a war of economic self-interest pursued by the American military-industrial complex? I don't think so. It was an engagement initiated by that admitted idealist John F. Kennedy! It was he who first sent in so-called American "advisers". His running-mate and chosen successor L. B. Johnson simply continued the process of escalation that Kennedy had started. It was a war motivated by a genuine and generous American desire, widely shared among the American population, to stop the spread of a totalitarian regime. I would not like to live under a dictatorship and by the direction in which the streams of refugees flow, neither do the South Vietnamese. I therefore support the aims of the Vietnam war. In fact, I would claim that it was an exceptionally unselfish war on the Americans' part. They had comparatively little to gain. North Vietnam was far away and hardly likely to go on and attack North America, and anything America could gain from South Vietnam was a mere trifle compared to what America lost there every day.

The execution of the war was another thing. What defeated America in the end was without a doubt the corrupt government in Saigon. Some Vietnamese thought it was even worse than the North. But what could the Americans do? It was the very idealism that made them go there to defend democracy that prevented them from taking over the South altogether. As it is, the strategy seems to have worked to some extent. A communist takeover seems as remote as ever. I don't know how they could have done any better.

`What about the suffering of the Vietnamese?' someone will say. There we come back to what, in my view, is the essential difference between the conservative and the radical. The radical is much more led by his immediate emotions. The thought of human suffering he cannot abide for any reason whatever. Yet it is a necessarily inconsistent position. I have yet to hear a radical who will not admit that the war against Hitler was a good thing. Indeed it was a matter of survival. If we hadn't fought Hitler, there would be no radicals, and there would certainly be enormous suffering. The answer simply is that suffering may be necessary to prevent further suffering. The conservative can accept and deal with this possibility. The radical would rather avoid the choice altogether and run the risk of jeopardising the future for the sake of giving his twitching little emotions a rest.

And this, it seems, is the reason why, unlike the workers, so many intellectuals and university people are radical. Living in their ivory towers, they have been insulated from the brutality of the workaday world and have not become inured to the necessity and inevitability of suffering. They manage to avoid most of it; why shouldn't the whole world?

The beliefs of university staff [faculty members], however, are important. It is their students who go out and fill top jobs in the public service and the media. Many business leaders and politicians who supposedly represent the worker are nowadays university graduates. So after three or more years of indoctrination, it is no wonder that people who have been through university think that the only intellectually defensible opinions are radical ones. The people with influence, then, acquire from their teachers an orthodoxy that is eventually passed on to the community as a whole. Increasing levels of education mean that more people are exposed to this radical or small 'l' liberal orthodoxy and this in turn explains the steady liberalisation of our culture over the years. Conservatism is heresy because radicalism is orthodoxy.

But surely this is a contradiction in terms: Surely what we mean by heresy is something that goes against convention. Heresy must be radical. The answer of course is that it all depends on your frame of reference. Intellectuals conceive themselves as having to fight against the ignorance of the rest of society. What the intellectual believes, is heretical to the worker and what the worker believes, is heretical to the intellectual.

By now it will perhaps be evident why I prefer to use the term "conservative" solely to refer to the content of beliefs. What makes the person we call a conservative tick is not his opposition to change but the fact that he is emotionally able to acknowledge and deal with the destructiveness and aggressiveness in human nature.

To the radical, destructiveness and aggressiveness are the hardest thing of all to accept. They are the things that make him most uncomfortable. He just cannot deal with them. What, then, does he do when he is forced up against them? Unbelievable as it may be, in one way or the other, he simply denies that destructiveness and aggressiveness exist. He tries to deceive himself, states that people are basically pleasant, considerate, and that any deviation from this is merely a mistake or misunderstanding that can be remedied by education. Of violent criminals the radical says: 'They should be re-educated, not imprisoned.' The faith that a man who just enjoys 'smashing people's faces in' can be cured by education is really childlike. Education might help the criminal to learn more about people's faces but it won't prevent him from enjoying 'smashing them in'.

Sometimes however, this evasion just cannot be maintained. Sometimes the radical is brought face to face with aggression. What does he do then? There is only one way then that he can maintain his delusion about the basic 'niceness' of humanity. He just denies that the aggressor is really human. He treats him as a non-person and cuts off all communication with him. To use a psychologist's term, the radical 'leaves the field'. Hitler is treated this way. Words like monster are used to describe him as if he were a freak genetic accident that didn't really belong to humanity as we know it. And yet what Hitler did is clearly in all of us. Sixty million Germans did his bidding and a large proportion did so willingly, without need of coercion. Pre-war anti-Nazi writers like Roberts admit that Hitler was by far simply the most popular man in Germany. If anybody is inclined to say, 'But we're not like the Germans', just go and listen to the crowd at a professional boxing, wrestling or football match. It may be a harmless way of releasing the aggression, but the aggression is there. The mass popularity of such sports indicates that such aggressiveness is the rule, not the exception. People like seeing boxers trying to physically hurt and maim each other.

The radical's endeavour, his need, to ignore such unpleasant realities cannot of course be adaptive. We don't need to go far back in history to find examples of this. Take the pacifists who reigned supreme in Britain after World War I who because of their own horror at what had happened in that war persuaded themselves there would never be a war again. As a consequence, when Hitler's troops marched into the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles treaty, the pacifists found excuses for him. They refused to believe that he was acting malevolently. Conservatives like Churchill, of course, wanted Hitler stopped there and then before he had the chance to build up his war machine. The pacifists however won the day and eventually all the world had to pay the price for that folly: World War II. If the world had not closed its eyes to what Hitler was doing, they could have stopped him before it was too late.

Just as the conservative Churchill was the most effective and relentless opponent of Hitler's Nazism, so conservatives in general are the most effective opponents of totalitarianism in general. They alone can ideologically afford to recognise and deal with the evil , and oppressive intent of such regimes. By contrast, radical policy is the policy of the ostrich.

Man does, then, have a great deal of evil in him and some human suffering will often be necessary if we are to avoid greater suffering. It is indeed a sad thing that such beliefs are heretical. I believe that they are undeniable truths which we ignore at our peril.


Full citation details for the references mentioned above can be found here

It may be asked whether my above contention that realism -- particularly about human nature -- is basic to conservatism is consistent with my contention elsewhere to the effect that respect for the individual and a love of personal liberty is basic to conservatism. Which of the two really is basic -- realism or love of liberty? The simple answer is of course that the two are intimately related. If you are cynical about the good intentions and wisdom of others, you will want the individual to be as free from the attentions of others as possible. A more precise answer, however, is that realism and its attendant cynicism is the motive and advocacy of liberty is the result. Putting it another way, liberty is what conservatives advocate and realistic cynicism is why they advocate it. Putting it yet another way, liberty is basic to conservative politics and realism is basic to conservative psychology.

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