The right needs a narrative to refute the superstitions of progress.
At any given time, most cultures have a dominant narrative, a collectively agreed upon story that explains where they came from, where they are going, and why. Narratives change over time—modern Italy’s is not that of ancient Rome—and several may be in contention at once. But one is usually dominant.
The contemporary West’s dominant narrative is the story of human progress. It reigns throughout the Establishment—politically, intellectually, economically, even theatrically (which is important in a decadent age). To question the progressive narrative instantly positions a person or institution beyond the pale: a weirdo, kook, or nutcase. Such people do not merit rational discourse; rather, they are offered psychological treatment.
As formidable as it first appears, the progressive narrative’s dominant position may soon be shaken. Just as the Establishment depends on the progressive narrative for legitimacy, so the narrative depends on the Establishment for protection. But the Establishment itself is failing.
Politically, the Establishment—which includes most members of both parties and almost all office-holders—cannot come to grips with America’s decline. It can act only within a narrow range, limited by controlling interests at court that feed off the country’s decay. Its range of action is too narrow to conceive and implement policies that might reverse decline.
Intellectually, the Establishment has been reduced to parroting the shibboleths of political correctness. Anyone with a contrary idea is not incorrect for this or that reason; he is a “thisist” or a “thatist.” When the only remaining intellectual prop of a ruling caste is name-calling, it is bankrupt.
Economically, the Establishment stands for globalism, which averages the once prosperous economies of the West with those of the rest of the world. They come up, but we go down. And as the middle class in Western countries finds itself impoverished, its wrath is turning against those who stole its bread.
Only theatrically does the Establishment appear yet unchallengeable. At most junctures in history, this would not have counted for much. Today, when many people’s lives revolve around being entertained, it counts for a great deal. By offering entertainment that appeals to the worst elements in human nature, the Establishment has given itself a lock on popular culture. To be viable, a competitor would have to raise the level of public taste, a task the education Establishment guarantees will prove impossible.
Yet beyond the theatrical, the whole vast edifice that is the Establishment is creaking and groaning. The gap between the demands of external reality and what the Establishment labels “possible” grows ever wider. From the hills of Afghanistan to the jungles of Wall Street, the Establishment is failing to produce. Individual crises, starting with the economy, are already upon us. Should many of them gather and snowball, the Establishment will face systemic crisis. That means a change of dynasty: the Establishment falls.
Should that happen, it may carry the dominant narrative with it in ruin. At the least, the progressive narrative would be open to serious challenge. With that prospect before us, it is worth our time to compare the dominant narrative with the alternate narrative.
Enlightenment or Dark Age?
Starting points in intellectual history are ambiguous, but the progressive narrative might be said to begin with Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum.” Man, and human reason, should be the measure of all things. Upon this belief the subsequent Enlightenment erected a great edifice, splendid in appearance. It is difficult not to identify with P.J. O’Rourke’s definition of utopia as the 18th century with modern medicine and air conditioning. Alas, not all that is beautiful is true.
The Enlightenment dismissed most of what came before it, excepting elements of the pre-Christian classical world, as “obscurantism.” It particularly loathed the Age of Faith, the Middle Ages. The Enlightenment’s heirs in the education Establishment now tell young people they need to know no history at all. It is merely a dark tale of bottomless evil and oppression.
Beyond Descartes and the primacy of human reason, the Enlightenment set as its foundation stones Lockean sensationalism and Newtonian physics. Locke argued that we can know nothing beyond what we are able to detect with the five senses. Newton depicted a clockwork universe, a model the Enlightenment believed could be extended to man and society, as in La Mettrie’s Man the Machine. (God has a sense of humor: La Mettrie was working on a second book, Man the Plant, when he died from eating toadstools he mistook for mushrooms.)
A fourth foundation derived from heresies ancient and modern: egalitarianism. Put together, they yielded what remains the framework of the progressive narrative today: by applying reason to observable phenomena, we can mechanistically design and erect a society where everyone is equal, the summit of human happiness.
Its framework established, the progressive narrative then traces its glorious march through history. The French Revolution triumphantly united the ideas of Enlightenment with politics, giving us the Rights of Man—most importantly égalité and license. While it may have shown an excess of zeal, the Revolution nonetheless charted the course to earthly paradise that has inspired all right-thinking men and women since.
In 1814, the dark forces of reaction achieved a temporary success. But the human spirit could not be held down for long. The American Civil War saw progress triumph, while in Europe socialism beckoned oppressed workers and peasants to rise up against feudalism and attain precious equality.
The 20th century, while bloody, confirmed that the march of Enlightened progress was unstoppable. World War I destroyed the reactionary monarchies of Europe—Russia, Prussia, and Austria —and made democracy the wave of the future. The Rights of Man triumphed again in World War II, despite the slight inconvenience, easily glanced over, that the decisive role in the Allied victory was played by Stalin’s Soviet Union.
With the fall of communism in Russia in 1991, history itself came to an end. Liberal, democratic, market socialism with human rights for all was now the unquestionable norm to which everyone on earth would conform. Where necessary, benign invasions and occupations would hurry the process along. We are all Jacobins now. Ain’t it grand?
Faith and Reason
The alternate narrative dares to reply, “No.” Far from believing that civilization began in the 18th century, following 1300 years of inky darkness, this counter-narrative has its feet planted in the Middle Ages. Like the Medievals, this tradition holds that reason without faith is incapable of hopefully addressing life’s central questions: Why are we here? Where are we going? Reason, restricted to what the five senses can detect, offers only a Gallic shrug.
Not surprisingly, after three centuries of “Enlightened” propaganda, almost everything modern people think they know about the Middle Ages is wrong. Medieval society not only represents the nearest man has come to building a Christian society, it was also successful in secular terms. Living standards rose, and with them population. That was true for all classes, not just the nobles. Monarchs were far from absolute—royal absolutism was in fact the latest thing in 18th-century fashion, a system for promoting rational efficiency—and subjects had extensive rights. Unlike the abstract Rights of Man, as practiced during the Jacobins’ Reign of Terror, Medieval rights were specific and real, established by precedent.
Our Medieval ancestors were observant and creative. They invented important technologies: the wheeled plow, the windmill, soap. (Medieval people loved to bathe; it was the Renaissance that stopped.) They had elaborate table manners; latter-day “Medieval feasts” would have appalled them. They made beautiful objects. And they built—oh, how they built! Can anyone visit the cathedrals at Chartres or Salisbury or the now desecrated St. Chapelle in Paris and think these people were primitive? And yes, they knew the world was round.
The Enlightenment’s picture of the Middle Ages, like so much it produced, was a bright, shining lie. We would be wiser to speak of the enlightened Middle Ages and the verdunkelte 18th century.
The alternate narrative’s view of what followed is selective. The Renaissance brought advances the High Middle Ages would have welcomed, including Christian humanism and the recovery of many texts from the classical world. But it also laid the basis for secular humanism, a prideful and subversive force that continues to do great damage to societies and souls alike. The Protestant Reformation pointed to some genuine abuses in the Church and also renewed the importance of Scripture. But the shattering of Christendom, the rise of an unsound doctrine of sola Scriptura, and the loss of the sacraments in much Christian worship were too high a price.
With the Renaissance and the Reformation, we come to the beginning of the Modern Age. As Jeffrey Hart wrote in Cultural Conservatism: Theory and Practice:
Sometime during the fifteenth century, the great and glorious project of modernity was launched in earnest. To put it briefly: whereas ancient Greek and Roman culture, with their extension and modification in medieval Christian culture, sought to understand the world and live according to that understanding, the modern project sought not to understand the world in its totality but to control it and use it. The ancient and medieval project issued in metaphysics, which attempted to reach a full understanding of a reality, part of which remained mysterious. The modern project issued in empiricism, which narrowed the focus of inquiry to the world which was available to the five senses and had the explicit intention of mastering it.
The alternate narrative accepts the question that defines the Modern Age, namely, how can man use the forces of nature for practical ends? But it insists that question is second order, not primary as the progressive narrative would have it. The most important question remains what Professor Hart delineated: how can man understand reality in all its dimensions, seen and unseen, physical and spiritual, and live according to that understanding?
The ability of the alternate narrative to answer questions of ultimate meaning is important in a time when technology threatens to master man rather than serve him and when the fruits of empiricism include material abundance but spiritual emptiness. The liberal, democratic, secular state may mark the end of history, but only by serving as its tombstone. Again, Professor Hart:
It is not surprising that empiricism has produced a sense of evanescing meaning, for empiricism never promised to deliver meaning of any sort, let alone ultimate meaning. It had no use for those intuitions and visions and purported revelations that had been taken into account by metaphysics. Empiricism had nothing to say about the foundations of being or the structure of moral authority. … Empiricism promised something else altogether, and speaking both metaphorically and literally, it delivered the goods: material abundance and enhanced physical well-being through the progressive mastery of nature.
The alternate narrative’s framework thus combines two elements: the Middle Ages’ faith and desire to see that faith reflected in society, and modernity’s use of reason to master nature. Because faith takes precedence, the alternate narrative can set limits: not everything possible is desirable. “Progress” can lead to getting things very wrong.
The alternate narrative’s history of modern times suggests that not only can we get things wrong, we have: the misnamed Enlightenment represents a fundamentally wrong turn.
But the alternate narrative by no means rejects the whole 18th century: not Haydn nor Mozart, neither Fragonard nor the rococo, not all philosophers and certainly not reason. On the contrary, it is in the 18th century that secular champions of the alternate narrative emerged, driven by the philosphes’ attacks on what almost all men had for generations held true. In Germany, the residual influence of Leibnitz held the worst excesses of French rationalism at bay. Before the outbreak of the French Revolution, men such as Rehberg and Brandes in Hannover were writing what we would recognize as culturally conservative works, such as Brandes’s refutation of feminism, Über die Weiber, published in 1787.
But it was in England that the greatest defender of the alternate narrative stood forth to do battle: Dr. Samuel Johnson. So vast was Johnson’s intellectual power, so fearless his war on cant, that virtually alone he prevented the errors of the philosophes from sweeping over the British Isles. Without Johnson, the Edmund Burke of the Reflections is unimaginable.
Johnson was no “obscurantist.” If not entirely of the Enlightenment, he was very much in it. No one could confuse The Club with the Spanish Inquisition. Johnson was a man of reason. But he was also a man of deep Christian faith, born of suffering, and of reverence for traditions. Up against the airy speculations of the French and their admirers he set the solidity of the Anglo-Saxon. When Boswell asked him how he refuted the argument of Bishop Berkeley that we could not really know the existence of anything, Johnson kicked a large stone and said, “I refute it thus.”
Johnson stood for king, church, hierarchy, and subordination: no leveler he. Boswell recounts Johnson as saying, “So far is it from being true that men are naturally equal, that no two people can be half an hour together, but one shall acquire an evident superiority over the other.” On order in society, Johnson opined, “Sir, I am a friend to subordination, as most conducive to the happiness of society. There is a reciprocal pleasure in governing and being governed.”
“Time, sir,” he said, “is the only test of the merits of anything.” He detested oppression—Johnson famously offered the toast “Here’s to the next insurrection of the negroes in the West Indies”—but he regarded as piffle the notion that “natural man,” “uncorrupted” by civilization, was somehow superior to man in society. Dr. Johnson died before the outbreak of the French Revolution, but it is not difficult to imagine that his reaction would have been similar to Burke’s.
That Revolution, which the dominant narrative celebrates as a triumph of “liberation,” is to the alternate narrative one of two great catastrophes of the West in the modern era. With Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, published in 1790 and often considered the founding work of conservative political thought, the alternate narrative finds the revolutionary French republic a wanton destroyer of much that was noble, beautiful, and good in the ancien regime. It unambiguously wears the White cockade.
It is not merely that the French Revolution unleashed 25 years of bloody war on Europe, nor that it brought tyranny, not liberty, in its wake. By mixing the false ideas of the Enlightenment about the perfectibility of man and society with political praxis, setting the precedent for using the power of the state to build an earthly utopia, the French Revolution laid the basis for socialism, Marxism, Soviet Communism, fascism, in short for ideology itself—the word, as well as the phenomenon, was coined during that hellish event. The Revolution opened a Pandora’s box whose evil spirits had, by the close of the 20th century, devoured tens of millions of lives and much of the substance of Western civilization.
In 1814, the three great conservative, Christian, European monarchies—Russia, Austria, and Prussia—closed the box. The alternate narrative celebrates their achievement. But though the box was closed, the poisons it had contained remained loose.
Suicide of the West
As recently as the summer of 1914, less than a century ago, the world restored in 1814 was still recognizable. Kaisers, tsars, and kings reigned. The goodness and rightness of social classes, each with its respective duties, was acknowledged by all but Marxists. The Christian religion, if not universally believed, was generally respected. Nietzsche’s “transvaluation of all values,” in which the old virtues become sins and the old sins virtues, was regarded as the raving of a syphilitic madman.
In that fateful summer, the West still governed the world. Its confidence in itself was high. The 19th century had brought vast progress; more was certain in the 20th. Living standards rose, populations grew, movements such as temperance were bringing social ills under control. Health insurance and pensions, pioneered by Germany, were rendering the working class more secure, while spreading prosperity was beginning its transformation into a new middle class.
Then the West put a gun to its head and blew its brains out.
The alternate narrative sees World War I as the West’s second catastrophe in the Modern Age. As the Marxist historian Arno Mayer has argued, in 1914 America represented the international left. By 1919, America was organizing the international right. America had not changed; the spectrum shifted around it.
The catastrophe of World War I encompassed three disasters. The first and greatest was that it happened. It was not inevitable. Kaiser Wilhelm II neither wanted war nor expected one—so Colonel House, Woodrow Wilson’s advisor, reported to the president in 1915 after extensive talks with the German leader.
A European war probably became unavoidable when Tsar Nicholas II, under great pressure from his foreign minister and war minister, reluctantly ordered general mobilization instead of mobilizing only against Austria-Hungary. That set the clock ticking for Germany.
The worst malefactor in turning the conflict into a worldwide conflagration was probably the British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey, who did want war (as did Churchill) and led Germany on, suggesting Britain would stay out until the momentum of the Schlieffen plan became irreversible. Grey said the price to Britain would be little different if she remained neutral or joined the Allies. And so the British Empire bled to death in the mud of Flanders.
The second disaster was America’s entry into the war, engineered by President Wilson after he won re-election on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” Wilson was a progressive, and the progressives knew the only way they could create the vast and powerful federal government they desired was through war. That would allow Washington to seize any power it wanted on grounds of “military necessity” while labeling critics unpatriotic—and jailing them. So began the devouring of the American republic by Leviathan.
The third disaster was that the wrong side won. Had America stayed out, the war would probably have ended in 1917, following the mutiny that year of the French army, in a compromise peace. Such a peace would have been favorable to the Central Powers, but even with France defeated, Germany had no answer to the British blockade. A balance of power would have returned.
A victory by the Central Powers would have meant a 20th century with no Hitler and no Stalin. Germany used Lenin as a weapon of war, but a victorious Germany and Austria-Hungary would never have tolerated a Bolshevik Russia. Unlike the Allies, who attempted to intervene against the Bolsheviks, the Central Powers were placed to act effectively. German troops occupied Russia almost to St. Petersburg and the Austrian flag flew over Sevastopol. Germany and Austria would have restored a tsar—albeit perhaps not the Romanovs; the house of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha might have bagged another throne. As to Hitler, victorious Kaisers would have no place for a Führer. Hitler had talent as an architect; perhaps he would have helped found the Bauhaus.
In this world, Professor Mayer’s spectrum shift to the left would never have happened. Conservative Christian monarchies would have triumphed. A spectrum shift to the right, while not inevitable, was possible; a defeated French republic might have been replaced with a monarchy. (Le Figaro: “The Estates General, deadlocked among the Legitimist, Orleanist, and Bonapartist candidates, today offered the throne of France to Prince Louis Napoleon of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha…”)
It is perhaps too much to hope that the 20th century’s grimmest reaper, ideology, would have found itself in history’s wastebasket. But it would have lost to its oldest opponent, legitimism, and lost badly. It might have been sufficiently weakened to give Europe and the world a century of relative peace, like that following the settlement of 1814.
Instead, the empires of Russia, Austria, and Germany were swept from the board. The poisons unleashed by the French Revolution flooded unchecked around the globe. Totalitarian ideologies conquered Russia, Germany, Italy, and in time others, including China. The 20th century became history’s bloodiest. The Allied victory in World War I brought not the end of war envisioned by the fanatical Wilson but the beginning of the end of the Modern Age. The West’s belief in itself, invincible in 1914, lay dead in the ruins of places like Ypres and Verdun.
A Century of War
From the perspective of the alternate narrative, World War II is less important than World War I. Its outcome confirmed the verdict of 1918. The West’s will to live, mortally wounded in the first war, had a stake driven through its heart by the second. Tens of millions of people died, whole communities were erased, incalculable capital went up in smoke. By 1945, all that was left in Europe was exhaustion.
Because the dominant narrative often accuses the alternate narrative of “fascism,” cultural Marxism’s term for any defense of tradition, clarity on the ideological outcome of World War II is important. The alternate narrative is hostile to all ideologies; as Russell Kirk insisted, conservatism is the negation of ideology. The alternate narrative dares hope for a world governed by tradition, custom, and habit, with wide local variations. It knows, and history confirms, that any attempt to use the power of the state to reshape society according to some set of abstract ideas brings tyranny and social dissolution.
Between fascism and communism, the alternate narrative sees little to choose. In September 1939, Nazi Germany’s concentration camps held just over 20,000 people. That same month, Stalin’s gulag held 1.3 million. Hitler liquidated six million people; Soviet Communism killed 60 million. Hitler’s holocaust was a crime; so was Stalin’s induced famine in Ukraine. Such are the wages of ideology.
The Allied victory in 1945 put an end to fascism, but at the price of Stalin swallowing half of Europe. Goebbels’s Iron Curtain—Churchill borrowed the phrase from him—did indeed run from Stettin to Trieste; behind it, every crime was permissible.
Then followed the third Western civil war in a century, the Cold War. The alternate narrative regards this as a necessary war: the threat of communist world domination was real. But the twilight struggle’s effects on what was left of Christendom—which includes Russia—were again disastrous.
After 1945, America was the West’s great hope. Undamaged by the world cataclysm, she rose to vast heights. But the 1950s proved to be her last normal decade. The counterculture revolution of the 1960s undermined her institutions: the family, the schools, even the churches. (Happy the day when a “gay Episcopal bishop” was one who ended up wearing the lampshade after too many martinis.) Popular culture cut its ties to high culture and became a source of endless moral degradation.
Meanwhile, the globalists exported America’s industry, reducing her middle class to penury. Overextended diplomatically, militarily, and financially, led by a “New Class” of self-seeking incompetents, she is well along the Spanish road to ruin. (Olivares, the White House operator is calling.)
What the dominant narrative presents as the march of progress, the alternate narrative sees as a trail of tears. In less than a century, the West suffered greater losses than at any time since the fall of the Roman Empire. It was stripped of its world pre-eminence, its belief in itself, much of its historic culture, and even its will to live, as its birthrates show.
The alternate narrative has been buttressed from Dr. Johnson onward by many serious works of history, politics, and philosophy—from Edmund Burke to Russell Kirk. It boasts an extensive and impressive historiography and bibliography. The dominant narrative pretends none of it exists.
Dare we hope that the alternate narrative, now largely unknown, unheard, and disregarded, might soon become dominant? Systemic crisis might open the door. If so, what remains of the West may find a solid postmodern footing in the framework the alternate narrative offers. That framework in no way rejects reason, science, or modernity’s mastery of nature. (Some neo-pagan postmodern views, such as Deep Green environmentalism, reject all three.) Rather, it calls for reason to join again with faith on the model offered by our Medieval ancestors and build anew a splendid Western civilization.
William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation. William S. Piper, a student at Baldwin-Wallace College, provided additional research.