Many years ago I regularly contributed to a respectable conservative journal and was thus invited to its editorial parties. I stopped going though, after I once found myself rubbing shoulders with Nick Griffin, head of the fascisoid British National Party.
“We need those people on side if we want to win,” explained another contributor, better-versed and more interested in the ins and outs of political jousting than I was. “If it means being in cahoots with such people,” I replied, “I’d rather lose.”
My colleague brought back to memory the French revolutionaries who came up with a spiffy slogan, pas d’ennemis à gauche, no enemies on the Left. In due course the guillotine delivered a cutting retort to that line of thought, but the concept survived even if its originators didn’t.
Marx and his Russian followers picked up the idea and dusted it off. Marx didn’t put it to a practical test, but the Bolsheviks did. Replace the guillotine with a bullet in the nape of the neck, and the outcome was the same: the whole party created by Lenin perished in CheKa cellars. The bullets were fired by their comrades on the Left, where there were supposed to be no enemies.
Alas, many people who describe themselves as conservatives have adapted the French slogan to their needs, mutatis mutandis. They may not say pas d’ennemis à droite, but they act in that spirit by clearly regarding everyone on the Right as their friend or at least an ally.
Now, regular readers know that I consider modern political taxonomy to be inadequate. But for the purposes of this exercise I’m prepared to treat as extreme Right what I’d normally describe as the nationalist, populist, variously fascisoid fringe. I see such people as alien to everything I hold dear, not substantively different in that respect from their mirror images on the Left.
Terms like ‘right’, ‘left’, ‘socialist’, ‘communist’, ‘fascist’, ‘nationalist’ all denote concepts gestated by the Enlightenment and delivered by its sharp revolutionary edge. Nationalism in particular couldn’t have existed in the past because nations didn’t exist.
From the Romans onwards, Europe was usually a conglomerate of empires, which term precludes nationalism by definition. I’ve heard of the Roman Republic, Roman Empire, Roman civilisation, Roman law, but I’ve never heard of the Roman nation. Had it existed, I would have heard of it.
Just look at two key figures in Italy’s history, Pontius Pilate and Thomas Aquinas. Even though they were separated by 1,200 years and played very different roles, they had one thing in common: indeterminate ethnicity.
Aquinas was a cousin to the Holy Roman Emperor and ethnically more German than Italian. Judging by Pilate’s service record in the equestrian order (native-born Romans seldom manned cavalry units) and subsequent postings to the Middle East, he too was of Germanic origin.
To those people Rome (or Italy) was a political, civilisational and cultural concept, not a national one. The same goes for the later European empires, up until the time they began to explode under the blows of modernity.
The fallout from those explosions produced the political perversions I mentioned earlier, including nationalism. If you define conservatism as an attempt to mitigate, ideally to reverse, the malignant effects of the Enlightenment, then a nationalist is as much of an adversary as a communist.
It’s important to distinguish between patriotism, love of one’s country, and nationalism, its extreme form. Nationalism is akin to a religious heresy, which is not necessarily defined as saying something wrong. It’s rather assigning an undue significance to one thing, extolling a part at the expense of the whole.
People who display this trait end up defining their whole being in unitary terms, which may be a sign of psychological derangement sometimes, but of vulgar thinking always. Overconcentration on a single issue is something I find intellectually and morally feeble – even if I happen to agree with the single issue.
Indiscriminate acceptance into the conservative fold of anyone who utters slogans having an emollient effect on the conservative ear strikes me as odd. Such welcoming chaps should take stock of their own beliefs and decide what it is that they wish to conserve.
If they don’t go through such a scrutiny of their intellectual inventory, they may end up regarding someone like Nick Griffin or Tommy Robinson as their friend. Now, Tommy, for the benefit of my foreign readers, is a thuggish guttersnipe with a list of criminal convictions as long as Donald Trump’s tie.
The convictions and subsequent prison terms weren’t meted out for any political activities. Tommy didn’t suffer for his commitment to conservative British values. He was sent down several times for such rather unconservative misdeeds as hooliganism, assault and drugs.
Having fought numerous battles at football stadiums, he now mostly brawls on-line by uttering variously vulgar statements in defence of aforementioned British values. Now Tommy wouldn’t know British values if they came up behind him and hit him on the head with a three-litre bottle of cheap cider, which I’m guessing is his preferred refreshment.
The conservative British virtues he not only doesn’t possess but wouldn’t even recognise are civility, self-restraint and moderation. These are more important than a fervent commitment to any political causes, including conservative ones.
A thug who vituperates day and night against uncontrolled immigration of aliens is still a thug fundamentally alien to British – indeed conservative – values even if we agree with the underlying sentiment. As far as I am concerned, his loudmouthed slogans present as much of a threat to conservative civility as the aliens he is desperate to keep at bay.
The problem with bite-sized slogans is that they encourage bite-sized thinking. Moreover, they are confined to politicking which ought to be the lowest form of human activity but has become the dominant one. Modern democratic politics encourages thinking in terms of the next election only, and snappy slogans have been known to swing votes.
Hence everyone is conditioned to think like a politician, which nowadays means looking for allies wherever they can be found. Thus ‘no enemies on the right’: provided some odious brute like Robinson attracts votes away from the Lefties, he is our friend.
Let’s scale the next political barrier and worry about the rest later, such is the widespread attitude. I’m sure Danton must have felt the same way about Robespierre, Trotsky about Stalin or, if you will, Röhm about Hitler.
Conservatism is all about preserving and upholding the core values of our civilisation – not about stemming the influx of undesirable aliens to our shores or even electing a politician who says things we like to hear. This may be a part of the conservation exercise, but only a small part, a piece in a kaleidoscope of other small parts.
The overall picture, on the other hand, is a harmonious canvas with many seemingly different parts held in fine balance. That makes a sense of balance a cardinal conservative virtue – and a perversion like nationalism a deadly sin.