When a movement neglects culture and philosophy, one can be sure it’s dying. High ideas, art, and literature seem remote from the concerns of political professionals and grassroots activists. But the movements that succeed—or that acquire power, at any rate—tend to be steeped in theory.
This is true on the left, both of the Bolsheviks who seized power in Russia a century ago and of the New Republic liberals who set the stage for the New Deal in the U.S., and it’s true on the right as well. A half-century ago, the conservative movement counted such thinkers as James Burnham, Russell Kirk, and Richard Weaver among its leading lights, even as the grassroots stormed the Republican Party and nominated Barry Goldwater for president. The success today of the “liberty movement” inspired by Ron Paul and his senator son owes something to the great intellectual preparation carried out by generations of libertarian thinkers.
The ideas never translate easily into policy, however. Again and again ideological movements are frustrated once they find themselves in charge—pure theory never works, and principles must adjust to practice. Thus Lenin early on had to reintroduce micro-capitalism to Russia with his “New Economic Policy,” while the conservatives who campaigned for Goldwater saw only a few of their dreams come true under President Reagan. (The most important of which, of course, was the end of the Soviet regime—though much of Reagan’s success derived from diplomacy and good faith of a sort that Cold War conservatives frowned upon at the time.)
Great ideas provide political movements with something more than slogans or activist inspiration—they fascinate and draw to an ideal young men and women of the highest talent, who find in new systems of thought (or refurbished old ones) an exciting and challenging alternative to the inertia of political convention. This entrepreneurial spirit gives even small ideological groups an advantage against a complacent establishment. Intellectual fanaticism is all too often a byproduct, but that is why a movement needs more than ideology. It needs culture.
And that should be culture in Matthew Arnold’s sense of “the best which has been thought and said”—not Ayn Rand novels or Socialist Realism. Good literature distills what is truly human and provides a reservoir of feeling to quench the aridity of ideology. Political professionals who disparage art and ideas alike are not hard-headed realists so much as they are symptoms of a “movement” calcifying into a bureaucracy—or just a scam.
The conservative mind has its political philosophy and is concerned to see a prudent program carried into practice. But prudence requires judgment—not mere deference to ideological formulas—and judgment requires perspective, which high culture can help to instill. Beyond this there is the need always to widen the appeal of conservative principles, and that begins with the recognition that reform of the sentiments usually must precede great changes in politics.