How To Be A Conservative


Crédits photo : Fabien Clairefond

Roger Scruton’s little book of lucid prose, How To Be A Conservative, is his first work to have been translated into French. Extracts from De l’urgence d’être conservateur were recently published in Le Figaro under this introduction:

Our heritage is also the property of those who have not yet been born

❝Although Roger Scruton is a prominent figure in the intellectual life of Britain, he is little known in France. None of his books had been translated into French until Les Éditions de l’Artilleur repaired the omission. Rich, nourishing, stimulating, like the most captivating of conversations, this essay offers a rare pleasure: to explore the sharpness and depth of an intellectual position.❞


In How To Be A Conservative, Scruton leaves a coherent intellectual trail. But the scent crosses a river and gets lost when he appears to genuflect before one of the great shibboleths of Leftist orthodoxy: the independence of race and culture.

Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. […] the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating, the work of creation slow, laborious and dull. [This is] one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.❞ — Roger Scruton.

In other words, acts of destruction are essentially juvenile. For The Europeans, Scruton’s systematically developed argument in How To Be A Conservative crystallizes the core position of the French Néoreactionnaires. Here unmistakeably is the shared curatorial instinct that motivates all conservatives, and which exposes them to the Left’s unrelenting hail of ridicule. After all, the nation-state is nothing but a tabula rasa. Remaking it with exotic materials rather than developing it predominantly from its own resources, is utopian fun galore — one splashes about in the very idea — and to eliminate it altogether would be sheer heaven. The concept of European culture is somehow inherently ❛racist❜; that of exotic cultures benign in proportion to their degree of victimhood. The proportionality is rigid: since Europe, as the former colonial power, is no victim at all, its culture merits no protection. In any case, it is always ❛The Other❜ that filleth the eye.

Chasing down every last fumarole of racism has long been the business of British, as of French, academe. Scruton has suffered much from this reign of intellectual terror, and he cuts a much lonelier figure in England than he would in contemporary France, where congenial company is easier to find. Ridicule and condemnation fall easily from the ❛progressive❜ neoliberal Left, passing for argument, while the principal warning of conservatism — take care what you wish for! — has to be repeated ad nauseam and with an almost superhuman persistence if it is to have any chance of being heard. ❛Controversy❜ is not a symmetrical concept: only conservatives can be controversial, a strange inversion.

For all its filibustering of public debate and unrestricted use of moral blackmail, the Left has its own vulnerabilities. The traditional bolt-hole of the Left is casuistry, the tacit assumption that moral questions can be settled — have been settled once and for all — by the application of arbitrarily chosen rules: which are themselves promptly tidied away after use, lest they be recursively applied and thus reduce the argument to absurdity. The handling by the Left of such issues as state education, gay marriage, equality, diversity, ❛migrants welcome❜, ❛open borders❜ and all the rest, testifies to the hidden pervasiveness of this kind of legerdemain. Reliance on casuistry is by definition always a tacit admission of weakness, which must be made up for by bluster. And again, George Orwell’s lethal observation — that the English Left despised English culture and civilization — can always be relied upon to crouch for employment at the heel of every conservative. But whoever is ashamed of European culture as somehow implicitly racist, who for whatever reason actively despises rather than justly criticizes it, is a fool.

Conservatives, by contrast, have neither need nor use for casuistry because they make two fundamental appeals, neither of which has anything to do with vapid intellectualism. The first is to the next generation, as yet unborn: that it demand its just inheritance. No living generation can bear responsibility for all of future time; that would be an absurdity: but it can at least provide continuity to the next. The second appeal of conservatism is to evidence: specific evidence of the pathological social conditions that arise whenever ideological dogma is translated into public policy. This appeal to evidence, at once a legal and a scientific concept, is simply incomprehensible to the Left. Where human rights are concerned, ❛The Other❜ is shielded from all claims by the principle of lèse majesté. The majesty of the victim.

❝ Political order […] requires cultural unity, something that politics itself can never provide.❞

Roger Scruton.

It is clear to conservative commentators that every shade of soixante-huitard ideology in Western Europe not only despises European high culture, but swims in the dream of destroying it once and for all. Burn its books, silence its music, demolish its architecture, deconstruct its science, lampoon its values, crush its institutions: but the sweetest cut of all would be to deracinate it in situ. There is a god-like joy in the prospect of this destruction that takes cover in the earnest desire to flatter the humanitarian conscience: the one is an excuse for the other, but the good and the evil are independent objectives in their own right. Since for the Left all social differentiation is vile, differences must be removed, the treasury of a civilization put beyond reference lest it charm another generation of European ❛racists❜. And to think that these people have control of education… It is not that they are embarrassed by the richness of European civilization while privately adoring it; it is that they are both embarrassed — as, say, an adolescent by his parents — and resentful that it is the civilization that is judging them, and not as they sublimely assumed, they it. There is an echo in this of Adolf Hitler’s largely disregarded order to destroy what remained of German infrastructure at the end of the War. Civilization has failed us: therefore we must destroy it.

One of the Left’s most teasing tactics is, in Alain Finkielkraut’s phrase, the criminalization of nostalgia. But the Left misses its mark here, because ❛nostalgia❛ is not understood by conservative realists as an ache for some memorialized past, but as nostalgia for a valued present that is slipping away. Another tactic is to argue for the irreversible transformation of Europe from the postulate of inevitability. Again, this misses the mark. Empires have indeed come and gone, projected on the map of Europe like the shadows of passing clouds. But it is not Empires that are now in play in Europe, but European civilization itself: that which has endured over thirty or so centuries as a continuous work in progress. That which will suffer the ❛tragedy of the commons❜, as its very openness is plundered, and it struggles to play field-hospital to the world.

❝ Since for the Left all social differentiation is vile, differences must be removed, the treasury of a civilization put beyond reference lest it charm another generation of European ❛racists❜.❞

In How To Be A Conservative, Roger Scruton takes in all of this territory in limpid English that must have been a joy to set down, and with a realism that tacitly heaps execration on the employers of casuistry. But then, suddenly, an arrest….

Race • Language • Culture • Territory • Continuity • Identity

Scruton supports a mercifully weak form of nationalism. ❝[…] democracies need a national rather than a religious or an ethnic ❛we❜. […] Unless and until people identify themselves with [a] country, its territory and cultural inheritance — in something like the way people identify themselves with a family — the politics of compromise will not emerge. We have to take our neighbours seriously, as people with an equal claim to protection, for whom we might be required, in moments of crisis, to face mortal danger.❞ Again, ❝The Enlightenment proposed a universal human nature, governed by a universal moral law, from which the state emerges through the consent of the governed. […] It was all beautiful and logical and inspiring. But it made no sense without the cultural inheritance of the nation state, and the forms of social life that had taken root in it. In this connection, Herder famously distinguished Kultur from Zivilisation, arguing that, while the second could be shared between the nations of Europe — and indeed increasingly was shared — the first was distinctive of each of them.

The veracity of Herder’s distinction is plainly visible to all but the willfully obtuse.

Scruton then goes on to explain ❝the truth in multiculturalism❞. ❝Thanks to the ❛civic culture❜ that has grown in the post-Enlightenment West, social membership has been freed from religious affiliation, from racial, ethnic and kinship ties, and from the ❛rights of passage❜ whereby communities lay claim to the souls of their members, by guarding them against the pollution of other customs and other tribes. It is why it is so easy to emigrate to Western states — nothing more is required of the immigrant than the adoption of the civic culture, and the assumption of the duties implied in it.❞

❝ France is the laboratory where Scruton’s theory of culture — as being independent of race — is undergoing its most exacting trial.❞

Then, suddenly, comes this: ❝But [routine charges of racism against defenders of Western values] depend upon a deep untruth — the untruth that race and culture are the same thing, whereas in fact they have nothing to do with each other. There is no contradiction in the idea that Felix Mendelssohn was Jewish by race and German by culture — or indeed that he was the most public-spirited representative of German culture in his day.❞ At this point, Richard Wagner enters dutifully as one of his own leitmotivs. ❝Wagner had to twist and turn his thoughts into every kind of absurd contortion in order to discover ❛Jewishness❜ in the music of Felix Mendelssohn, from whom he took so much. And Wagner’s repugnant essay on Judaism in music is one of the first instances of the lie that we have had to live through — the lie that sees race and culture as the same idea, and which tells us that in demanding a measure of cultural uniformity, we are also affirming the dominance of a single race.❞ Passing over the obvious cavil that Wagner, had he lived as long as Cosima, would have had rather less difficulty in detecting ❛Jewishness❜ in the music of Gustav Mahler, Scruton then goes on to deliver the blow. Once race is uncoupled from culture, he writes, it naturally becomes legitimate to compare cultures, and to observe that not all are equally admirable, nor can they necessarily exist comfortably side by side. To deny this would be to remove moral judgement from the repertoire of human nature. And so it is, that the multiculturalists stumble or fall silent when confronted with such monstrosities as genital mutilation carried out in the banlieues: moral judgement is forbidden to them, in relation to race or to culture, irrespective of whether they consider the two to be of the same coin. The distinction is simply irrelevant to them. Moral judgement can be applied only to the already condemned: the European.

Finally, and keeping firmly to his awkward distinction between race and culture, Scruton asks what happens when people whose identity is burdened by anachronistic practices migrate to nations ❝settled by Western culture❞? ❝The activists say that we must make room for them, and that we do this by relinquishing the space in which their culture can flourish. Our political class has at last recognized that this is a recipe for disaster, and that we can welcome immigrants only if we welcome them into our culture, and not beside or against it. But that means telling them to accept rules, customs and procedures that may be alien to their old way of life.❞ Mildly, Scruton does not believe that making such demands constitutes an injustice.

Philosophy and Reality

Metaphysical concepts, as it were, queue for admission at the gates of Physics. In order to be waved through, they must show their papers: evidence. But even arguments as firmly rooted in humanitarian feeling as Roger Scruton’s face a similar test: the scale of events. How To Be A Conservative was written in 2013, before the disasters in the Middle East spilled millions of terrified people towards Turkey and then onwards into Europe, and some two years before Angela Merkel unilaterally declared Europe open and limitless. France is the laboratory where Scruton’s theory of culture — as being independent of race — is undergoing its most exacting trial. This same ❛independence theory❜ is furiously insisted upon by pretty much the whole of the French political spectrum, by the media, and perhaps even by a majority of French people: it would be interesting to ask them. Scruton says that to deny it is a lie, which for him is strong and unusual language. French republican sentiment is adamant that the Empire can go to the bin of History, as long as its values endure. Somewhere. Scruton’s ❛lie❜ leads to a reductio ad absurdum.

❝There are no races and no cultures and no civilization: only people who are interchangeable, provided that they are denominated in the correct ❛values❜.❞

In the French republican catechism, as interpreted by the Left, France — the territory — is no more than a platform for the acting out of the three abstract values: liberty, equality and fraternity. Real patrimony, for example that of the depopulated countryside, is discounted. The French are not even an ethnicity, let alone a race. They have no absolute claim to the land. The French language has no essential pre-eminence; it merely exists side by side with, as it happens, Arabic. Homogeneous French suburbs are ❛boring❜. There are no races and no cultures and no civilization: only people who are interchangeable, provided that they are denominated in the correct ❛values❜. Perhaps the values of ruminants in the mediæval Foro Romano. The list goes on, and is capable of indefinite extension in the game of self-disgust. It has the ring of puerile nonsense to say the least, but owes little to exaggeration; and there is no doubt that it is believed — or at least advertised — by significant numbers of influential people.

But unless it is allowed that race and culture, pace Roger Scruton and others, bear some transmissible relation to each other, enjoy some minimum degree of congruence, some agreeable Gemütlichkeit, then reductio ad absurdum immediately knocks on the door. The key to Scruton’s theory of their absolute separation is assimilation: the process by which the immigrant becomes similar to the host, who then in turn ceases to be host and becomes instead fellow citizen on equal terms. Integration then follows naturally from assimilation. This is nice in theory, but it suffers from two crippling objections. The first is that nowhere on earth has the first stage of the process, assimilation, been observed to go to completion: and indeed how could it, when it is deliberately counteracted by state-sponsored ❛diversity❜? We are many and one at the same time! And to return to the laboratory, the French experience of assimilation has been woeful. The same could be said of Germany.

❝ Progressives, too, are nostalgic: but for a future less real, more utopian, more dangerous yet at the same time more banal, than the past that they obtusely accuse conservatives of seeking to recover.❞

The second objection is that even if assimilation — ostensibly a kind of mimicry — were substantially achieved, the theory would still collapse for a very practical reason: deracination in situ results from increased immigration, as the French can readily testify. Ask many of them to draw a distinction between the two, culture and race, and you will not be understood. Faces are symbols for both race and culture; they are symbols both individually and generically. Two European faces can be as diverse as a Spaniard’s and a Finn’s, a Greek’s or a Norwegian’s, but they are still mutually comprehensible ❛dialects❜ belonging to the same European civilization. The normal human environment consists predominantly of faces and the voices that go with them: voices that can be understood with little effort; faces that attract the minimum of trust ordinarily accorded to a stranger. Faces that can be read with a satisfactory degree of confidence. This is not a difficult concept, just unremarkable daily experience for all Western Europeans. The colour of the face, the timbre of the voice, hardly matter at all — as long as their features and rhythms are used in a recognizably European way. Assimilation is an almost impossible demand to place on a non-European immigrant, and in every conceivable way; but without it there is no chance of closing the gap between race and culture. And assimilation ought not to be confused with mere mimicry. A Russian settling in Paris is already assimilated. His face more or less ❛fits❜, and he has only to become fluent in French, first as mimic, then as master, in order to function like a French citizen. The fact that he is ❛European kin❜ makes him more rather than less interesting. But a muslim Arab attempting the same feat must first of all consider the terrible issue of apostasy, and the lesser issues of dress, language and comportment, or else take the easy option and melt into his own sectarian quartier. And the result is deracination for all: immigrants and Français de souche alike. If evidence were needed, one merely cites the many “zones lost to the Republic”.

This is where the separation of race and culture founders: it relies on an impossible condition — integration — and its own impossible pre-condition, assimilation.

❝ Assimilation is the process by which the immigrant becomes similar to the host, who then in turn ceases to be host and becomes instead fellow citizen on equal terms.

But it gets worse. Of the four truly great civilizations — the Chinese, the Hindu, the Islamic, and the European — one is on the point of cultural suicide and another is tearing itself apart physically; but the remaining two are bending every effort to transmit themselves intact into the indefinite future. Indeed, their sheer size and momentum bend that effort for them. All, apart from the Europeans, are far more interested in their diasporas in the West than in any notion of a grand changement du peuple at home: the very idea would be absurd to them. By contrast, the Europeans have long pursued a demographic policy that they know full well leads inevitably to the reductio ad absurdum mentioned earlier: a ❛French❜ population dominated by African and Middle Eastern faces and languages. Unassimilated faces, of course, because the force of numbers has already rendered assimilation a fantasy. The result: European nations in which African, Middle Eastern, and Asian populations are nudging towards a combined majority; divided by race and creed, practising what they will in a regime of state-sponsored moral relativism. This is already prefigured in France and Germany by what is visible on the streets, but more directly in the schools, which tell the future with greater veracity than any other institution. The precise opposite of neoliberal goals? At this late stage, and with the interests of global organizations plain to see, to respond with a grudging ❛perhaps❜ already presupposes more generosity of spirit than the exhausted conservative can muster.

❝ Conservatives are nostalgic for the disappearing present, nostalgic for ordinary change in contradistinction to the tide of social mutation that is the reality.❞

Conservatives are nostalgic for the disappearing present, nostalgic for ordinary change in contradistinction to the tide of social mutation that is the reality. Progressives, too, are nostalgic: but for a future less real, more utopian, more dangerous yet at the same time more banal, than the past that they obtusely accuse conservatives of seeking to recover. If the first-order values of European progressivism are expressed by the famous triplet of the French Republic’s motto, then the second-order follow immediately: Incongruity, Dissonance, and Anachronism. If you seek their monument, look about you…

It is Scruton’s emotive use of the word ❛lie❜ that is arresting. Instinctively, one senses the presence of a contortionist behind the screen. All theories are limited in their application. General Relativity breaks down at the Singularity; the independence of race and culture works well when immigrant minorities in a European population are small and stable, and when their members are educated and, be it said, Europhile. But when the minorities threaten to become the majority, whether by steady decades-long accumulation or sudden mass migration, the rules inevitably change, and indeed break down altogether. French and German taxpayers and retirees, who do not think it vulgar to mention money, are now shouldering the astronomical cost of their governments’ holy madness.

There are ❝absurd contortions❞ of Scruton’s own making in his emotional insistence on the absolute separation of race and culture. ◼︎