On Liberty, Order, and Revolution

Two separate but related movements are playing out across our country right now.

The first is a grassroots protest movement driven by widespread outrage over the tragic death of George Floyd. Over the past few weeks, it has taken the form of speeches, peaceful demonstrations, discussions about the persistence of racism in America, and debates over police brutality.

The second is a radical, revolutionary movement seeking nothing less than a complete restructuring of our society and government. Its aim is to tear down America as it currently exists and replace it with something fundamentally different. Members of this movement are not interested in dialogue or the democratic process. They are determined to impose their will through intimidation and force, not debate.

This first group may be considered “liberals,” in both the classical and contemporary sense. They are concerned primarily with liberty and equality, and thus naturally skeptical of order, authority, and hierarchy.

The second group can be considered “radicals,” as they share many features of past radical, revolutionary movements. Unlike liberals, who are generally peaceful and accepting of gradual change, radicals view violence as a necessary and even righteous path to achieving their ends. Some are motivated by the naive belief that getting rid of existing institutions like the police will bring an end to problems inherent to the human conditions (i.e. greed, inequality, scarcity). However, many radicals are less concerned with building a better world than with burning down the old one. The thrill of rioting and looting and desecrating can become an end in itself. What they don’t realize is that there is always a smaller, better organized group waiting in the wings to capitalize on the chaos. Unlike the young, starry-eyed radicals being used to create the power vacuum, they know exactly what they will do once they step into it.

Of course, there is a third group: conservatives. These are the law-and-order types who have been watching the nation’s descent into anarchy with mounting horror and disbelief. They generally value liberty and security and support law enforcement, though they are more likely than liberals to own firearms for their own protection. Many conservatives do not recognize their country anymore. They are currently either thanking God that they live in rural, suburban, or red-state America, or else making plans to move there.

As I write this, a group of radicals has taken over a six-block area of Seattle, including a police station. They have declared it an autonomous zone, free from police interference. The irony that they have erected barriers (much like border walls), implemented ID checks, and posted armed guards is not lost on conservatives. How quickly do high-minded ideals melt away when injected with an infusion of power.

The radical Left has been equally merciless in the cultural arena. Even the popular kids show “Paw Patrol” has come under attack for depicting positive portrayals of police (talking cartoon dogs). A&E has pulled its hit TV-show Live PD. The Academy award-winning classic Gone with the Wind has likewise been pulled from HBO. Beloved author and liberal J.K. Rowling has been denounced by the radical Left for daring to defend the common sense notion that biological sex exists. When it comes to “cancel culture,” nobody is safe.

Where is all of this going? What is the end game?

I was discussing this with a friend recently. She wanted to know my take, as a student of history. My response: “The revolution will eat its own.” Allow me to explain.

While it can be exciting in the initial phases to denounce authority and demand drastic changes, the majority of people eventually tire of the unceasing demands of revolution. This includes even liberal “fellow travelers” who may have initially backed some of the radicals’ demands. At a certain point, the need for a return to normalcy overrides the desire for change. There’s a reason Mao needed a “Cultural Revolution” to bring back the spirit of revolution a few decades into China’s experiment with communism.

The irony now, as with the French Revolution of 1789, is that the liberals always give birth to the very radicals who eventually escort them to the guillotine. In 1791, the French National Assembly penned the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, a document full of Enlightenment high ideals. Less than three years later, King Louis XVI’s head was rotting on a pike, and France was in the grip of the Reign of Terror. Five years after that, the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte was cheered as he entered Paris. This from the same crowds who had only recently demanded “Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity.” They were ready for the madness to end, and eager for a return to law and order.

The Russian Revolutions of 1917 followed a similar pattern. What began as liberal criticism of Nicholas II and frustration with Russia’s continued involvement in World War I ended with the radical Bolsheviks seizing power, a bloody civil war, and decades of totalitarian rule.

Of course, America was also born in revolution, but ours was an oddly conservative one. Men like Washington and Franklin saw themselves as restoring rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta and English common law, not creating something radically new. We drew our inspiration from John Locke, who argued that governments exist to protect our natural rights to life, liberty, and property. These ideas can be found almost word for word in our own Declaration of Independence.

The French had for their inspiration one Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Coming at the tail end of the Enlightenment and the beginning of the Romantic Era, Rousseau was critical of the overly rationalistic manner of earlier thinkers like Locke. He made a name for himself criticizing civilization itself in his 1754 Discourse on the Origin of Inequality, in which he presented man as a “noble savage” corrupted by society, and the institution of private property as his original sin.

In his later, more extensive work The Social Contract, Rousseau posits the state as the ultimate expression of the General Will, or the people collectively. As such, the state cannot be wrong. People who differ from the General Will must be rooted out and brought in line by force. But in the words of Rousseau, this means only “that he will be forced to be free.”

If you want to know how someone can go from denouncing inequality to demanding totalitarianism, look no further than Rousseau. I find his call for a civil religion particularly telling and prophetic:

It follows that it is up to the sovereign to establish the articles of a purely civil faith, not exactly as dogmas of religion but as sentiments of social commitment without which it would be impossible to be either a good citizen or a faithful subject…. While the State has no power to oblige anyone to believe these articles, it may banish anyone who does not believe them… As for the person who conducts himself as if he does not believe them after having publicly stated his belief in these same dogmas, he deserves the death penalty…

The dogmas of civil religion should be simple, few in number, and stated in precise words without interpretations or commentaries… As for prohibited articles of faith, I limit myself to one: intolerance. Intolerance characterizes the religious persuasions we have excluded.

Did you get that? If you don’t toe the line of the General Will, you will be banished. Pretend to do so and you will be executed. But all this in the name of tolerance!

In the case of Russia, Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin provided the intellectual inspiration. A Germany historian and philosopher, Marx viewed all of history through the lens of class conflict. He saw mankind as divided fundamentally into two camps: the haves and have-nots. In Marx’s day, the haves were the bourgeoisie, the ascendant middle class of industrial capitalist society. The have-nots were the “workers of the world,” the proletariat. Owning nothing but their own labor, they were forced to sell themselves at starvation wages to the owners of the means of production.

An atheist and a materialist, Marx rejected all divisions based on race, nationality, or religion – “the opiate of the masses.” He thought it was only a matter of time before the workers began to think of themselves as a class and unite against their oppressors. Then the workers or proletariat would seize power from the bourgeoisie through a revolution. They would run society temporarily as a dictatorship of the proletariat until such a time as class enemies were eliminated (they could not be reformed). At that point, there would be no need for government, as Marx saw government as just a means by which the ruling class oppressed the others (surely the proletariat could not oppress itself?). The reward for their hard work would be nothing short of heaven on earth, the “anarchist utopia” that would signal the arrival of true communism.

Vladimir Lenin made one key revision to Marx’s outline of revolution. The people themselves could not be trusted to guide the revolution. They would need an elite core to tell them what to do and crush all dissent.

Marx may have died in 1883, but his ideas live on in America’s colleges and universities. America’s Marxists have shifted their concern from the shrinking blue-collar working class (who tend to be Trump voters), to other “oppressed” groups: racial minorities, undocumented immigrants, and the LGBT community. As with original Marxism, the first step is to convince the majority of people that they are being oppressed. The second is to divide people into haves and have-not’s. After all, the flip-side of oppression is “privilege.” Just like the show trials in the old Soviet Union, class (now race) enemies must be made to publicly confess to their crimes, even the crime of simply belonging to a privileged group. But no apology can ever erase the stain of being an enemy of the people, a speed bump on the route to utopia.

Left-wing radicals are attempting to channel the legitimate grievances of historically underprivileged groups into an ax that they can wield against all the institutions they seek to overthrow: organized religion, law enforcement, the nuclear family. A cursory glance at the official Black Lives Matter organization reveals an agenda that goes far beyond saving black lives; it is saturated with Marxist thinking.

Marxists tend to denounce all authority and hierarchy as arbitrary. But as Jordan Peterson has explained, proper authority is not arbitrary; it is tied to competence. On an airplane the passengers listen to the captain; not because he is some tyrannical dictator, but because he is the only one knowledgeable enough to get them all safely to their destination. No sane person would suggest overthrowing the captain for the crime of elevating himself above the passengers; the result would be death for all.

Many hierarchies are just the natural results of variation across groups. There are necessarily fewer outstanding than mediocre basketball players. The same goes for plumbers, artists, and musicians. The excellent athletes, artists, and tradesmen make more money and receive more attention than their mediocre peers. This isn’t “unfair”; it’s life.

Perhaps academics and bureaucrats have a hard time understanding this, as their positions are more determined by connections than by merit (The same goes for the overfed children of the upper middle class who formed the core of Occupy Wall Street). They begin to see all hierarchy and authority as bad. There can be no families, as families subordinate children to their parents; no small businesses, as these subordinate employees to their bosses. Society appears like a house with far more people dwelling in the basement than in the upper levels. The only way to make everyone equal is to burn the house down.

And this would be a good solution, if one’s only goal was to make everyone equal, in some vague, amorphous sense. But what about liberty?

The radicals may be expressing themselves in the language of Karl Marx, but the real prophet of the nineteenth century was Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the book Demons (also translated as The Possessed), Dostoevsky describes how the generation of 1840’s liberals unwittingly gave birth to the radicals of the 1860’s. Even as the youth of the town descend further and further into nihilistic violence, the older, liberal generation looks on with mild bemusement until it is too late.

In Demons, one young radical proclaims:

“I got entangled in my own data, and my conclusion directly contradicts the original idea from which I start. Starting from unlimited freedom, I conclude with unlimited despotism. I will add, however, that apart from my solution of the social formula, there can be no other.”

Ha!

As Dostoevsky notes with both the title and epigraph of his book, there is something akin to demonic possession in the frenzy of the radicals. It defies logic or reason, but rather grips hold of a person or group, spurring them to commit violent acts. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the radical Saul Alinsky dedicated his book Rules for Radicals to the original rebel himself: Satan.

It’s worth looking over those rules now and seeing how they are being implemented. One in particular stands out: “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it.”

What the conservative understands is that freedom is not simply the license to do whatever one pleases; such a world would quickly descend into hell on earth. True freedom, properly understood, is the ability to choose the good. This kind of genuine freedom only thrives where there are structures in place to channel human passions toward constructive rather than destructive ends. We are not born “noble savages” as Rousseau once claimed; society is not the enemy of morality, but rather its teacher. We are not each other’s enemies, as Marx later claimed; the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, not between “good” and “bad” classes of persons.

Our country was founded on the concept of ordered liberty, or freedom limited by the need for order in society. Today our rights are being threatened both by anarchy in the streets and draconian lock-downs imposed by state governments to fight COVID-19 (limits that oddly enough do not apply to protesters). Both have enjoyed widespread support from liberals, most of whom don’t yet realize the radicals’ agenda or the greater threat posed by the globalists’ desire to establish a new world order with themselves at the pinnacle.

The Right is not immune from its own extremist tendencies in the other direction. Fascism results when the need for order becomes an obsession, and hierarchies become too rigid. But I would argue that too little order poses a greater danger to genuine human freedom than too much of it, for the reasons explained above. Chaos is only a temporary state on the path to a new order more tyrannical than its predecessor.

The revolution will eventually eat its own. The question is, how will we measure the collateral damage, both to individual families and freedom-sustaining institutions? How long will the process of rebuilding take, before a civilization more confident in its purpose than our own is able to rise from the ashes?

Edmund Burke, the French Revolution, and What It Means to Be Conservative

When asked to define conservatism, the average person would likely rattle off a list of policy positions. Conservatives are for lower taxes, smaller government, stronger defense, and more traditional values. Liberals, on the other hand, favor higher taxes on the wealthy, a more generous welfare state, a smaller defense budget, and more progressive social norms. But this brings us no closer to understanding the essence of either term.

A casual glance through Wikipedia will reveal that not only are there conservatives and liberals, but liberal conservatives, conservative liberals, and libertarian conservatives. There are also fiscal conservatives, national and traditional conservatives, cultural and social conservatives, religious conservatives, progressive conservatives, and authoritarian conservatives. What do they all mean? Is it even possible to boil all these diverse strands into a single, essential conservatism? If so, what value does it offer today?

I would argue that there is such an essence, rooted not in policy but in outlook. When presented with a problem, conservatives look to past experience for guidance. They espouse a view of human nature that is basically fixed. Man has always been man, and will never be anything but. Therefore, any system of ordering society or government will accept the very real limitations imposed by human nature. Utopian schemes, be they Nazism or communism, are thus to be rejected out of hand. As psychologist E. O. Wilson said of communism, “Great idea. Wrong species.”

What do conservatives seek to conserve? Tradition is the most obvious answer. The accumulated wisdom of past experience. Virtues such as loyalty, obedience, and sacrifice – traits that have gone out of style in recent centuries.

Conservatives look to the past and find beacons of light that still illuminate the problems facing human societies, as human societies themselves reflect our unchanging human nature. Aristotle, Cicero, Aquinas, Shakespeare, Franklin, and Dickens stand ready to point the way with sage advice and observations. Though none would pass the test of today’s utterly liberal social norms, conservatives are willing to forgive these cultural icons for tolerating and even justifying certain evils of their day, including sexism and slavery. Conservatives lack some of the smug self-righteousness of today’s liberal social justice warriors. They understand that we are essentially no better than our ancestors in the moral sense, though we benefit from a necessarily larger pool of human wisdom.

What makes defining conservatism and liberalism so tricky is that the meanings of both terms have evolved over the decades along with the political debates of the times. Yet both ideologies trace back to the French Revolution, which began in 1789 and continues to reverberate to this day. In the nineteenth century, many conservatives favored absolute monarchy and maintaining the social hierarchy, while opposing revolutionary movements. Liberals espoused Enlightenment principles of liberty, democracy, and nationalism, while often supporting revolutionary change.

Edmund Burke, who many consider to be the founder of modern conservatism, had this to say about the French Revolution, in particular the execution of Marie Antoinette:

Oh, what a revolution! and what a heart must I have, to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! … little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her, in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honor, and of cavaliers! I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards, to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult.

But the age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever. Never, never more, shall we behold that generous loyalty to rank and sex, that proud submission, that dignified obedience, that subordination of the heart, which kept alive, even in servitude itself, the spirit of an exalted freedom! The unbought grace of life, the cheap defense of nations, the nurse of manly sentiment and heroic enterprise is gone. It is gone, that sensibility of principle, that chastity of honor, which felt a stain like a wound, which inspired courage whilst it mitigated ferocity, which ennobled whatever it touched, and under which vice itself lost half its evil, by losing all its grossness.

The relationships here described help explain why some liberals can’t stand Downton Abbey, the acclaimed PBS drama with a distinctly conservative bent. Why, they must wonder, do the servants appear to care for the family instead of organizing a labor strike, or at least spitting in their afternoon tea?

In Downton Abbey and Poldark, another PBS drama set a century earlier, it is the middle class that provides the chief villain. It is interesting that Burke’s assessment should be echoed by none other than Karl Marx, the founder of communism. He describes a similar historical process in his condemnation of capitalism and the bourgeoisie, denouncing Burke’s “economists and calculators:”

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left no other nexus between people than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned out the most heavenly ecstacies of religious fervor, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence…

Marx would no doubt consider Burke one such “reactionary,” pining for the lost chivalry and glory of a bygone era. But Burke was not the mindless defender of the status quo that some of his liberal critics thought him to be. He supported the American Revolution, even making a pleading speech in Parliament to seek peace with America:

Again and again, revert to your old principles—seek peace and ensue it; leave America, if she has taxable matter in her, to tax herself. I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries. I do not enter into these metaphysical distinctions; I hate the very sound of them. Leave the Americans as they anciently stood, and these distinctions, born of our unhappy contest, will die along with it…. Be content to bind America by laws of trade; you have always done it…. Do not burthen them with taxes… If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. No body of men will be argued into slavery…

Burke’s support illuminates the essentially conservative spirit of the American Revolution, as oxymoronic as this may at first sound. Our Founding Fathers saw themselves as restoring their ancient rights as Englishmen, rights that stretched back to the Magna Carta, and before that to God’s creation of man. Unlike the Jacobins of the French Revolution, they did not seek to redefine and reinvent every aspect of society. They were, for the most part, students of history and men of faith. The idea of overthrowing Christianity would have never occurred to them, although it was attempted with disastrous results in France.

Burke understood the forces that connect us to each other better than most of his more liberal contemporaries. He knew that the strongest bonds are with those closest to us, but that “to be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon… is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind.” Any system of government must recognize that we exist not as isolated individuals or a single, uniform mass, but as members of families and communities first.

It was Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the chief inspiration of the French Revolution, who first rejected this essential truth, seeing even the family as an artificial, modern construct that society would be better off without. Efforts to isolate the individual from the family culminated in the communist movements of the twentieth century and can still be seen today. Recall “Julia” of President Obama’s infamous campaign ad, who moves through life relying upon the state to act as mother, caretaker, and spouse. In sum, conservatives are more likely to see the family, not the individual, as the basic unit of society.

Can one be too conservative? Certainly, just as one can be too liberal. At the extremes of conservatism, we find reactionaries who reject practically all change and long for a return to a past that is already gone. At the extremes of liberalism, we find radicals who are willing to tolerate any amount of violence to bring about necessary social change, even if it brings only equal misery. Liberals praise dictators like Fidel Castro because they judge people on their good intentions and lofty ideals, not on the human misery and deaths that often result from misguided policies.

In their rush to remake society, many liberals dismiss the Constitution and the Bible as outdated and irrelevant, obnoxious hindrances to progress. They mistakenly believe that human nature itself can be changed. In their rush to redefine marriage, they jettison millennia of human experience without a second thought. But it does not stop there (it never does), as “male” and “female” are now up for redefinition as well.

It is true that conservatives are more cautious about launching into massive social experiments of the sort that liberals desire. But this does not mean opposing change at all costs. Recall that Burke himself supported the American Revolution and its emphasis on natural rights, while rejecting the radicalism of the French. As we survey the current generation of campus activists ready to protest at the slightest offense, it is worth asking – are we raising a generation of Jefferson’s or Robespierre’s? Does our path lead to the Constitution, or the guillotine?