Edward Lucas, who knows the evil of Putin’s Russia for what it is, asks this question in the title of his recent article.
He then describes the demonstrably non-conservative features of that regime: “Conservatives are normally in favour of strong independent institutions. Russia has none. Conservatives like the rule of law. Russia runs by fiat. Conservatives like religious freedom. Russia persecutes religious minorities, notably the Salvation Army and the Jehovah’s Witnesses… [Then there are] the abominable conditions it inflicted on its workers, the grotesque inequality, the climate of fear and the lies about history belied all its claims to be humane or heroic.”
All very true, though I’d be tempted to add the systematic harassment and murder of political opponents, the nauseating totalitarian propaganda, the abolition of the free press, money laundering as the principal economic activity and many other aspects of the regime formed by a fusion of organised crime and history’s most diabolical secret police.
Put together, these make the question in the title difficult to answer, and Mr Lucas doesn’t really do so. Allow me to lend him a helping hand: they don’t. Real conservatives detest Russia’s kleptofascist junta as much as Mr Lucas does.
His question was made possible not by anything conservatives do, but by the semantic confusion about what conservatism is. The entire political taxonomy of modernity suffers from such terminological free-for-all, with political labels routinely designating concepts that are exactly opposite to the proper definitions.
Thus liberal gets to mean illiberal; democratic, non-democratic; tolerant, intolerant; social justice, social injustice; fairness, unfairness; comprehensive education, comprehensive ignorance; equality, inequality – and so forth ad infinitum, oxymorons galore.
The term conservative is routinely misused to describe radical ideologues mouthing nationalist (often racist) and right-wing (often fascist) slogans. As such, they’re similar to communists in that both are equidistant from Western conservatism.
Where semantic rigour reigns, a conservative is defined by what he wishes to conserve. Without going into more detail than this format allows, let’s just say that, in the West, this means preserving whatever good is still extant of Christendom (religion, culture, social structure and its political offshoots) while trying to bring back to life whatever has become extinct.
A political conservative understands the sinful nature of man, but loves him nonetheless; knows that man is fallible because he’s indeed fallen – but redeemable because he’s indeed redeemed; accepts, however, that some men are evil beyond redemption in this life; realises that liberty imposes tough responsibilities, but still cherishes it; appreciates the importance of a strong state, but is deeply suspicious of it; doesn’t equate strong with big; believes that power must be devolved to the lowest sensible level; given the choice, chooses individual over collective; distrusts irreversible changes; doesn’t form a strong opinion before he knows the relevant facts; doesn’t confuse patriotism with jingoism; appreciates that a country doesn’t have to be great, but does have to be good; loves his country, but not automatically everything it does.
Real conservatism comes from intuitive predisposition, not a political philosophy, much less an ideology. It’s a character trait more than a product of ratiocination. A real conservative may or may not be able to post-rationalise his intuition in philosophical, moral or religious terms, but both his success and failure in such an undertaking would be just that, post-rationalisation.
It’s obvious that such intuitive conservatives can’t possibly treat Putin’s kleptofascist junta with anything other than squeamish contempt. Conversely, if they do have warm feelings about Putin, they aren’t intuitive conservatives.
Instead they’re the kind of people who in Europe swell the ranks of chauvinist, neo-fascist parties, such as France’s National Front, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Greece’s Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik, Italy’s Forza Italia, Austria’s Freedom Party – and the groups Mr Lucas mentions: “the hard-right Alternative for Germany… the Sweden Democrats… the right-wing Fidesz party which rules Hungary, and the nationalist Independent Greeks…”
Closer to home, support for Putin within our misnamed Conservative Party mainly comes from those who detest our vacillating, spivocratic government and especially the EU. Like apophatic theologians, they proceed from negation, not affirmation – and like socialists, from hatred, not love.
Their ‘conservatism’ is a heresy, in the true meaning of the word. Most people assume that a heresy puts forth a wrong proposition, or at least one that contradicts the orthodoxy. However, most heresies aren’t wrong in their main belief. Where they err is in trying to assign an undue significance to one idea, passing a part for the whole.
Detesting our government is understandable, and hating the EU even more so. Yet an intuitive conservative would seek a solution within the traditional ethos of Christendom – not in fascism, which is as inimical to it as communism is.
One may say that these people simply don’t know the relevant facts, which is what many kind souls used to say about the pre-war admirers of Stalin or Hitler. In all such cases they don’t know because they don’t want to know. Their quest for truth is overridden by ideological fervour, which ipso facto disqualifies them as conservatives.
Or perhaps they really are ignorant of what Putin’s regime really is, which is fair enough. We all have lacunae in our education. Yet an intuitive, which is to say real, conservative would be aware of his ignorance and for that reason alone would refrain from forming a strong opinion on the subject.
So Mr Lucas can be reassured on this subject: conservatives see through Putin’s lies all right. If they don’t, they aren’t conservatives.