Two books have appeared within the last decade that deal with conservative thought in an especially enlightening manner: Yuval Levin’s The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left and Domenico Fisichella’s La democrazia contro la realtà: il pensiero politico di Charles Maurras. Both authors have relished the whirlwind of political life, Levin as a George W. Bush domestic policy advisor and founder of the journal National Affairs and Fisichella as minister of culture in the first cabinet of Silvio Berlusconi and a longtime senator in the Italian national assembly. Given their entanglement in daily political affairs, it is remarkable that such active individuals have found time to produce scholarly studies of political thinkers from an earlier age. (Fisichella’s book, which translates as Democracy Against Reality: The Political Thoughts of Charles Maurras, is not yet available in English.)
Although Levin acclaims the thinking of the 18th-century Anglo-Irish statesman Burke with fewer reservations than Fisichella approaches his more controversial object of study, both authors believe that their subjects have much to teach the present age. They try to make their ideas relevant to the present, although in the case of the second figure in Levin’s book—Thomas Paine, who was a critic of Burke, an enthusiast for the French Revolution, and an advocate of the “rights of man”—we are given a counterexample to what Levin considers to be sound political and social views.
Levin is writing unmistakably as an exponent of what he takes to be Burkean principles, and he presents Paine as a foil to the wiser Burke. Although Levin depicts Paine as a spokesman for a progressive cause that eventually triumphed in much of the West, he sees no reason to join in the celebration, even while acknowledging Paine’s effect on posterity. Fisichella has a harder row to hoe in making his subject palatable. Charles Maurras was a leading figure of the anti-democratic right in France for more than 50 years, and his highly polemical paper, Action française, was bitterly critical of everything the liberal democratic West now values, whether cultural pluralism, political equality, or what Maurras mocked as the human-rights heritage of the French Revolution.
Thanks to his involvement in the Dreyfus Affair from its outset in 1894—together with his insistence that the Jewish captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was at the center of the affair, should be found guilty of treason for the sake of the French military even if the charge against him was never really proven—and his post-World War II condemnation by a French court for collaborating with the German occupation of his country, Maurras has acquired a truly bad reputation. Not all of it has been deserved. His biographer Stéphane Giocanti, in Maurras: Le chaos et l’ordre, demonstrates that the charges heaped on Maurras as a Nazi collaborator were largely unsubstantiated and represented payback by the French left, including the true accessories in the fall of France, the Communist Party.
It was not Maurras and his followers—many of whom fell in the Battle of France—but communists who refused to take up arms against the invader as long as Nazi Germany remained allied to the Soviet motherland. A lifelong adversary of the “German menace,” Maurras had already called for a French preventive war against Hitler in 1936, when the German leader remilitarized the Rhineland. Although Maurras was later hailed by the Vichy regime as an intellectual pillar of the new order and wrote in defense of its leader, Marshal Pétain, he derived no tangible benefit from this association. By then Maurras had become a recluse suffering from extreme deafness, although he was dragged out of retirement at war’s end to stand trial.
One may even doubt that Maurras had any significant influence on the revolutionary right in France in the late 1930s. By then his monarchist cause had been overshadowed in members and disruptive potential by, among other movements, the Parti Populaire Français (PPF), founded in 1936 by the former communist Jacques Doriot. By the time of Hitler’s invasion of France, Maurras’s movement and paper, both called Action française, had drifted into political irrelevance.
Although Maurras had long been popular among Catholic traditionalists in France, in 1926 Pope Pius XI—the same pontiff who had Joan of Arc canonized while reaching out to French Catholics—placed his tracts on the Index of Prohibited Books. Pius discovered to his consternation that Maurras, a free-thinking dandy, was not a devout coreligionist but supported the Church for mostly political reasons. Thereafter such onetime loyalists as Jacques Maritain and Georges Bernanos defected not only from Maurras but also from the right, evolving into politically left-wing Catholics.
Another longtime admirer of Maurras was Charles de Gaulle, whose family had approved of his monarchist, pro-military positions. But de Gaulle, a towering figure of the Resistance, was powerless to prevent Maurras’s trial, even if he managed to have his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment, which meant five years out of the octogenarian’s by then already considerably shortened life span.
In any case, Fisichella’s attempt to clarify Maurras’s political thought is a much harder task than pointing to the merits of Burke’s conservative principles. Or so it would seem from examining Levin’s forcefully argued work.
Levin accounts with extreme lucidity for Burke’s “prejudice” in favor of rule by aristocratic types who, in Burke’s words, “are profoundly studied, can comprehend the elaborate contrivance of a fabric fitted to unite private and public liberty with public force, with order, with peace, with justice, and, above all, with the institutions formed for bestowing permanence and stability through the ages, upon this invaluable whole.”
For Burke, Levin writes, “as society sustains itself through inheritance, it will sustain certain social and political inequalities, too, for its own good. And these inequalities have crucial added benefit, beyond elevating the best qualified.” Such political inequalities provide “‘a strong barrier against the excesses of despotism,’ by establishing habits and obligations of restraint in ruler and ruled alike grounded in the relations of groups or classes in society.” Levin explains astutely his subject’s misgivings about democracy and “abstract rights.” Rights for Burke were part of the “inheritance” of a people, not the invention of a single generation, and while democracy could be a “legitimate part of a government,” democracy by itself could be ruinous to prescriptive liberty and a balanced regime.
Levin stresses Burke’s indispensable conceptual role in defining what the political right became. Here the author is stating something that is true in a sense that goes beyond what he says. Almost all continental critics of the French Revolution and the architects of European conservatism in the early 19th century cited Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which has been called “the breviary of the counter-revolution.” By the first decade of the 19th century French, German, and Italian opponents of the Revolution—and defenders of a society of orders and degrees and historical rather than abstract human rights—were quoting Burke freely.
Even before Friedrich Gentz translated the Reflections into German in 1793, there were hundreds of references to the English text among incipient German conservatives. The same could be shown for French émigré communities that had fled eastward to escape the upheaval at home. The body of ideas that German sociologist Karl Mannheim designates as “conservative thinking” would have been far harder to formulate if Burke had not lived to see the French Revolution and had not been driven to pen his eloquent diatribe.
Less certain than his formative influence on the right is whether the ideas Burke expressed in response to the French Revolution are still pertinent. Levin treads the path already taken by conservative scholars Russell Kirk and Peter Stanlis when he tries to relate Burkean teachings to the present age. Levin undertook his project partly to demonstrate that Burke’s picture of a sound society and polity is reflected in our present American situation. According to Levin, our parties answer to the same “general descriptions” as did the debate between Burke and Paine, which is between “progressive liberalism” and “conservative liberalism.”
What Burke taught about human nature, much of it derived from Aristotle and Cicero, may well be permanently true. And Levin correctly notes that Burke’s counsel of prudence in politics—which is also, not incidentally, found in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics—allows us to deal with the “given world.” But part of Levin’s argument raises for me questions. Unlike him, I do not discern Burke’s model of a well-ordered, hierarchical society and a state built on settled traditions in the current American regime. Rather I agree with the late libertarian Frank Meyer’s criticism of Russell Kirk’s attempt to depict America (in the 1950s) as a society that resembled the one Burke defended against French revolutionary doctrine.
Meyer warned us against confusing New Deal America with 18th-century England. In his book In Defense of Freedom he asked rhetorically whether “the whole historical and social situation in which they find themselves”—that is, America’s Burkeans—“including the development of statism, collectivism and intellectual anarchy” parallels Burke’s understanding of a solid constitutional social order.
Of course, the older America criticized by Meyer may look almost as archaic today as Burke’s England. But this is all the more reason to question whether the world Burke saw himself as upholding prefigured America’s behemoth administrative state, largely post-national society, and widespread commitment to social equality. Would Edmund Burke, had he observed our society, have penned his famous passage: “Our political system is placed in a just correspondence and symmetry with the order of the world and with the mode of existence decreed to a permanent body composed of transitory parts”?
Alas, I doubt it. And I won’t push my point further by asking how Burke might have responded to the question of whether gay marriage should be advanced by the courts or by state legislatures. Neither this struggle for “equal rights” nor the removal of social and legal distinctions between sexes could conceivably have entered Burke’s mental horizon when he was denouncing the far more modest democratic changes introduced by the French Revolution.
Further, pace Levin, our two gargantuan institutionalized national parties don’t seem to be recognizable outgrowths of those factions of landed aristocrats whom 18th-century English monarchs called on to form cabinet governments. Needless to say, a “conservative movement” dedicated to the universal promotion of human rights would have been for Burke an utter oxymoron. It is not even clear that the patrimony of “liberalism” that Levin defends in his conclusion has anything to do with what is now understood by that term.
For anyone who, like me, is struck by discontinuity in political life, Fisichella’s exposition of Maurras’s political theory will hold a certain fascination. It is not that Maurras was a more attractive or likeable figure than Burke. His use of anti-Semitism as a populist weapon was reprehensible. But Maurras spoke for the “right,” a designation that most definitely is not a synonym for the GOP or its promoters on Fox News.
By the 1890s, when Maurras broke onto the French political and journalistic scene, the monarchy was a thing of the past. And by the time Captain Dreyfus was pardoned in 1906, France had a committed anticlerical government that appealed to the model of the revolutionary Jacobins. The triad of monarchy, army, and church around which Maurras built his movement was an improvisation, and even the attempt to yoke nationalism—which was born of the French Revolution—to the right only started in the last few decades of the 19th century. Unlike Burke, who was a defender of a given world, the Provençal littérateur who founded AF invented his reality.
Fisichella provides a genealogy for how Maurras went about devising his rightist “logic,” noting the influence on his thought of the counterrevolutionary Joseph de Maistre; the father of sociological positivism, Auguste Comte; various late 19th-century French nationalists; and most intriguingly the classical historian Numa Fustel de Coulanges. Fustel set out to document the continuity of Indo-European religion and customs in Greek and Roman society in La Cité antique, known in English as The Ancient City. According to Fisichella, Fustel “fixed his target” on Montesquieu and those who disseminated the long-standing view that European liberty arose in “the forests of Germania.”
Fustel has been cited to prove that European civilization was Greco-Roman more than Germanic. Maurras, who underwent an epiphany of sorts while visiting Athens in 1896 and standing before the Parthenon, eagerly embraced Numa’s sympathetic portrayal of Greco-Roman antiquity. According to Maurras, France was the bearer of Western civilization in mortal combat with the anti-classical Germans and the only slightly less malign English. Although he made the Catholic Church a pillar of his right-wing nationalism, it was classical antiquity, not the Jewish authors of the Gospels, as Maurras tells us, that he found worth preserving. He despised Protestantism for its Germanic origin and emphasis on individual will and threw in for good measure as the devil’s work romantic art and literature, which he attributed to hyper-individualism and a wayward imagination.
A leitmotiv in Fisichella’s work is the necessarily situational character of Maurras’s theoretical construction of a French right. Although there is much in his worldview that indicates a Catholic monarchist matrix, Maurras also made accommodations to the age. He vigorously championed labor unions, acclaimed the Third Estate as the “backbone” of the nation, and was particularly sympathetic to the lower middle class—which in fact had played a pivotal role in the radicalization of French Revolution and the creation of what for Maurras was the hated Third Republic in 1871.
Maurras tried to integrate all classes into what he described as the “historic nation” and the “patrimony it bequeathed to posterity.” Although a monarchist who praised the pre-Revolutionary France of “thirty kings and forty provinces,” he pinned his hope of monarchical restoration on the Count of Paris, a descendant of the Orléanist collateral branch of the Bourbon dynasty that was identified in the 19th century with constitutional reform and the ascending bourgeoisie. Not exactly partisans of Action française, most Orléanist backers were bankers and business people, at least some of whom were Jews and Protestants.
Even if not quite the “democratic realist” Fisichella intermittently discerns in him, Maurras was remarkably adaptable in reconfiguring the right to include classes that had been extraneous to French conservatives in the early 19th century. The template holding this ideology together and attesting to its European rightist character was Maurras’s appeal to the French as a historic nation and to those traditions that preserve social cohesion. The nation as he understood it was a physical entity but also a body of tradition that had to be “bequeathed intact.” A proper state protected this body of custom and the social relations it upheld while exercising its sovereignty against national enemies. The task of a traditional state was not to refashion family relations or to commit one’s country to global crusades in the name of abstract universals. It was to preserve and protect what already existed, what Burke called “prescribed rights” and “historic entailments.”
Against an ordered social and political life, Maurras posed the shambles of the French republic, which he saw as a front for corrupt interests. He ascribed the scandals that rocked this regime to the lack of recognized authority in a government that never stood for the entire nation. To whatever extent the Third Republic had legitimacy, Maurras insisted, it acquired that by identifying itself with the French Revolution. This too bothered Maurras: for him the Revolution stood not for an extension of the French past but for a radical break from the older traditions of his country.
Needless to say, one could as easily argue the opposite point, which Alexis de Tocqueville did when he traced the course of political centralization in France through the Bourbon dynasty into the French Revolution. The Revolution expanded an administrative structure that had begun centuries earlier and that the aristocracy had rebelled against in the 18th century. One can also show that both the Enlightenment and romanticism had strong roots in France and, pace Maurras, did not depend for their existence primarily on German or English Protestants. Maurras had the tendency to blame on foreign contamination what was often quintessentially French.
One can readily recognize in Maurras’s defense of a monarchist regime above partisan interests Rousseau’s appeal to the general will in The Social Contract. Like Rousseau, Maurras distinguishes between what most people think they want and “what one in a hundred understands as the general good.” Although it is possible that Maurras came up with this formulation on his own, more likely he picked it up while reading France’s most famous proto-romantic. Another shared concern of Maurras and Rousseau was the poisonous effects of moneyed interests on political life. The passages dealing with this pollutant in The Social Contract—e.g., “where there is money, there are also chains; the term ‘finance’ is a servile term that is unknown in a true political organism”—might have come from one of Maurras’s tirades against the Third Republic.
These observations are not meant as an endorsement of Maurras’s particular paradigm in early 20th-century France. Some of his positions are dated, and others, even in the context of his historical situation, were grotesque, starting with his campaign against Dreyfus. But Maurras was aware of the difficult task of survival that confronts the right in uncongenial times. This persuasion cannot advance by conjuring up questionable genealogies for radically changed societies. Yet the right can offer a counter-vision to those in power.
A disempowered right in the U.S., for instance, can present itself as an alternative to the bipartisan status quo and stand for social traditionalism combined with local government and a non-missionary approach to foreign policy. These few lines are not a definitive statement of what the American right should be; they are simply an attempt to point out one possible rightist alternative to the interests of our political class and to underscore, as in the case of Maurras, the necessarily improvised character of any right-wing restoration.
“Traditions” are often selected or exaggerated contributions drawn from the past. All the same, the right cannot operate without them.
Paul Gottfried is the author of Leo Strauss and the American Conservative Movement.