Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Kutuzovs of the Left and the Right

Towards a Tolstoyan conservatism

This will, hopefully, be the last post in this series. In my last post, I talked about Tolstoy’s understanding of the conservative virtues and this idea of mine that statesmanship is like surfing. As the final step in my argument, I want to emphasize that these virtues are not the property of either political party or electoral coalition, and that therefore it is vital not to identify the mission of this magazine with victory for any such party or coalition.

I do not believe there is a conservative party in America. There is, rather, a right-wing and a left-wing party, in each case relatively speaking. The Republican Party is relatively right-wing and the Democratic Party is relatively left-wing.

I’m using my own idiosyncratic definition of “right” and “left” here, but it’s an idiosyncrasy I’m increasingly fond of. The distinction between “right” and “left” in my view has to do with the relationship to “winners” and “losers” in society. The right is more interested in rewarding winners. The left is more interested in helping out losers.

I should be clear that “winners” and “losers” are not moral terms. If the game is rigged, then both “winners” and “losers” can be undeserving. You can make a moral case for helping “losers” on precisely the grounds that the game is rigged against them, and they deserve better than they are getting. But you can also make a case for helping “losers” entirely on the grounds of need, or on the grounds that inequality as such retards social progress, without regard to desert. Similarly, you can make a moral case for increasing the reward to “winners” on the grounds that the game is not rigged, and they deserve everything they’ve earned. But you can also make a case entirely on the grounds of dynamism, that rewarding “winners” is how you get a more successful society in aggregate, regardless of desert.

But the party of the right is going to be more concerned with the interests of groups that are winning (or have won in the past), whether fairly or unfairly, and the party of the left is more concerned with the interests of groups that are losing (or have not won in the past), again whether fairly or unfairly. That’s a political definition that, in my view, works pretty well over long stretches of time and through various permutations of “winners” and “losers.”

A winning political coalition, of course, is going to work to unite the interests of relative “winners” and “losers” because both are part of a single nation – and a losing coalition is going to fail to do this. But even so, that difference of emphasis runs deep, and it’s wrong to presume that either perspective is correct or incorrect.

So we have a right-wing and a left-wing party. But we do not have a conservative party – nor could we. Parties are organized around coalitions of interests, and interests don’t have a temperament. Both the right- and left-wing party can exhibit and have exhibited a temperament that is conservative, liberal, or even radical, depending on circumstances and on the issue in question.

In my view, a conservative political and intellectual journal should be pushing in a particular temperamental direction, for both the left-wing and right-wing party.

The reason for pushing this way is not to ensure that this or that coalition of interests triumphs at the polls, because that triumph will, ultimately, be a function of the relative power of said interests, which in turn will be a function of deeper historical forces that are too chaotic to be discerned. Signing up as the intellectual handmaid of a particular set of interests may feel like it is essential work to ensuring the triumph of truth and right (which are implicitly identified with one particular set of interests), but this is mostly an illusion, and an even less-plausible illusion than that of Napoleon, convinced that he is shaping history through the application of his genius through the instrument of his will. And by signing up to be such a handmaid, you are signing up to perpetuate that illusion among your readership. Which runs precisely counter to cultivating the conservative virtues that I listed above.

But whatever coalition of interests winds up relatively dominant (and, in a political system like ours, “dominant” is very much a relative term), those conservative virtues will be crucial in effectively surfing the unpredictable waves of history. And that is the reason to push for a greater appreciation of those virtues, across the political spectrum.

I concluded my last post by saying that, as a society, we could use more of Tolstoy’s Kutuzovs, and more appreciation as a society for their particular wisdom. I have no basis for believing that the constellation of forces arrayed behind the Republican Party is more likely to produce persons of such temperament than the constellation of forces arrayed behind the Democratic Party – but more to the point, I suspect that even to frame the question that way is to guarantee failure, to guarantee that those virtues are subordinated to the material demands of the coalition. Even if, in our hearts, we are convinced that this or that coalition should triumph – even if we believe that the particular virtues I’m describing have a more natural home in one coalition than the other – we should behave as if they have transpartisan application and importance. Because they do.

[Ed: Read Millman’s other posts on Tolstoy and conservatism here, here, here, and here, and a response from Rod Dreher.]



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