The Intransigent Right at the End of the Century
- Rationalism in Politics, and Other Essays by Michael Oakeshott, edited by Timothy Fuller
Liberty, 556 pp, $24.00, October 1991, ISBN 0 86597 094 7
A few months alter the fall of Margaret Thatcher, the most original thinker of post-war Conservatism died. Perhaps partly because of the commotion caused by the change of national leadership, the passing of Michael Oakeshott did not attract much public notice. Even the Spectator, which might have been expected to mark the event with a full salute, ignored it for half a year, before carrying a curiously distracted piece by its editor, reporting strange losses in the philosopher’s papers, without so much as mentioning his political ideas. Perhaps another element in the muted reaction was the remoteness of Oakeshott’s intellectual origins from the contemporary landscape. Anglo-Scottish Idealism of the early years of this century, its other lights long since extinguished, has become one of the least recollected episodes of the native past. Oakeshott was always held difficult to place. Although he was an exemplary patriot of British institutions, a superficial glance might lead one to think he was latterly more regarded in the United States. His last book, The Voice of Liberal Learning, was edited from Colorado. The first posthumous collection, an enlarged version of Rationalism in Politics, now appears from Indianopolis. The only extended survey of his work is a monograph from Chicago. But his profile, on either side of the Atlantic, continues to be elusive.
Oakeshott has most frequently been taken as the wayward voice of an archetypical English conservatism: empirical, habitual, traditional, the adversary of all systematic politics, of reaction no less than reform; a thinker who preferred writing about the Derby to expounding the Constitution, and found even Burke too doctrinaire. The amiably careless, comfortable image is misleading. To set Oakeshott in his real context, a comparative angle of vision is needed. For he was, in fact, one of the quartet of outstanding European theorists of the intransigent Right whose ideas now shape – however much, or little, leading practitioners are aware of it – a large pail of the mental world of end-of-the-century Western politics. It is alongside Carl Schmitt, Leo Strauss and Friedrich von Hayek that Michael Oakeshott is most appropriately seen. The relations between these four figures await documentation from future biographers. But whatever the circumstantial contacts or conflicts – some more visible than others – the lattice of intellectual connections between them forms a striking pattern. By generation, three were virtually exact contemporaries – Strauss (1899-1973), Hayek (1899-1991), Oakeshott (1901-1900). Older by a decade, Schmitt (1888-1985) overlapped with them, living like Hayek into his nineties, a longevity approached by Oakeshott too. They came from different disciplines – economics (Hayek), law (Schmitt), philosophy (Strauss) and history (Oakeshott) – but politics drew their concerns into a common field. There, they were divided by marked contrasts of character and outlook, and by the respective situations they confronted. The interweaving of themes and outcomes, across such differences, is all the more arresting.
The formative experience of all these thinkers was the crisis of European society in the inter-war years, as the established order came under increasing pressure from economic dislocation, labour revolt and middle-class back-lash, and then proceeded to buckle at its weakest points. In the Weimar Republic, the Westphalian Schmitt began his career as the most original Catholic adversary of socialism and of liberalism. In polemics of electric intensity, whose charge was increasingly aimed at the precarious parliamentarism of post-Versailles Germany, he treated their ideas as dilute theologies, which were bound to prove weaker than the force of national myth. His own positive doctrine became a neo-Hobbesian theory of politics. Its critical edge was to protect the state of nature depicted in Leviathan, the war of all against all in which individual agents are pitted against each other, onto the plane of modern collective conflicts: thereby transforming civil society itself into a second state of nature. For Schmitt, the act of sovereign power then becomes not so much the institution of ‘mutual peace’ as the decision fixing the nature and frontier of any community, by dividing friend from foe – the opposition that defines the nature of the political as such. This stark ‘decisionist’ vision came out of a regional background in which the choices seemed, to many others as well as Schmitt, to reduce themselves to two: revolution or counter-revolution. ‘We in Central Europe live sous l’oeil des Russes,’ he wrote. His own option for the second term – he was an admirer of De Maistre and Donoso Cortes – was never in doubt.
In England, where Schmitt’s incandescent early manifesto for the Roman Church was edited in a Catholic series of Essays in Order, polarities were not so acute. The Cambridge of the Twenties was a sheltered place, and Oakeshott’s concerns were not initially so political. His first publication was a tract on Religion and the Moral Life whose theme was the necessary completion of ethical choice by religious wisdom, and thus the substantive unity between civilisation and Christianity. Oakeshott’s personal piety seems to have declined over the years, yet the contrary accents of religious tradition and of radical choice remained: a combination recalling the early Schmitt, with the difference that Oakeshott’s background was Anglican rather than Catholic and his decisionism moral rather than political in register. But he had studied theology at Marburg and Tübingen, and was familiar with Political Theology, Schmitt’s famous application of religious categories to secular doctrines. When he turned to politics, Oakeshott’s intellectual allegiance proved to be the same. It was on Hobbes that he set out to build a theory of the state. For both men, Leviathan – ‘the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language’, as Oakeshott termed it – was to be the touchstone for any modern account of civil authority.
Nor was this was the only parallel in their outlook. When he ventured political opinions in these years, Oakeshott’s scorn for liberalism and democracy was scarcely less incendiary than Schmitt’s. Giving his verdict on the other English philosopher usually held for a classic, he spoke with the authentic voice of the radical Right: ‘Locke was the apostle of the liberalism which is more conservative than conservatism itself, the liberalism characterised, not by insensitiveness, but by a sinister and destructive sensitiveness to the influx of the new, the liberalism which is sure of its limits, which has a horror of extremes, which lays its paralysing hand of respectability upon whatever is dangerous and revolutionary ... He was meek, and until recently he inherited the earth.’ Fortunately, that legacy was now passing into other hands. ‘Democracy, parliamentary government, progress, discussion’ and “the plausible ethics of productivity” are notions – all of them inseparable from the Lockian liberalism – which fail now to arouse even opposition,’ Oakeshot scoffed: ‘they are not merely absurd and exploded, they are uninteresting.’ These lines were written in the autumn of 1932, on the eve of the Nazi victory in Germany. A fewmonths later, Schmitt – who had been adviser to Brüning and then to Schleicher – went over to Hitler. Looking at the new regime from England, Oakeshott had decided by the end of the decade that, compared with available alternatives, representative democracy, however incoherent as a doctrine, had something to be said for it after all. Catholicism, however, was the repository of another tradition of profound importance, authoritarian without caprice, ‘an inheritance we have neglected’. ‘So far as this country is concerned,’ he went on, ‘I venture to suggest that many of the principles which belong to the historic doctrine of Conservatism are to be found in this Catholic doctrine’ – which had been given constitutional shape in the Austria of Dollfuss and Portugal of Salazar. In April 1940, on the eve of the fall of France, he was still dismissing ‘clap-trap about government by consent’.
Leo Strauss, meanwhile, from an Orthodox background in Hessen, had made his debut in the Zionist movement with texts on Jewish religion and politics – his first significant piece was on Das Heilige – before moving to the study of Spinoza’s Biblical criticism, and thence to research on Hobbes. This brought him into contact with Schmitt, with whom he enjoyed friendly relations in Berlin. Before leaving Germany in 1932 he devoted his last publication – in the same months as Oakeshott was pronouncing his sentence on Locke – to the most arresting of Schmitt’s works, The Concept of the Political. In a critique that was both admiring and admonitory, Strauss argued that Schmitt’s laudable rejection of liberalism had mistaken its philosophical bearings for Hobbes’s theory of the state was not an antidote to modern liberalism, but its very foundation. In radicalising Hobbes’s matter-of-fact view of the human passions and their resolution in civil society into a tacit exaltation of enmity as the necessary signature of any political life, Schmitt had only produced a ‘liberalism with a minus sign’. What was needed was a ‘horizon beyond liberalism’. Intimations of this could nevertheless be found in Schmitt’s text, when he spoke of an ‘order of human things’ that lay in the return to an undefiled nature. It was this natural order, Strauss remarked, which the liberal conception of culture had forgotten. Schmitt took these objections in his stride, making a few quiet adjustments in subsequent editions of his work to accentuate the hints of a religious background that Strauss had noted. He also helped Strauss get to France before Hitler came to power. Six months after the installation of the Third Reich – on the day Goering elevated Schmitt to the Prussian State Council – Strauss was writing to him from Paris, asking for an introduction to Maurras. In 1934 Strauss moved to London, where he complained that Schmitt’s latest publication, his first development in legal theory under the new order, had incorporated Strauss’s proposals for an advance beyond decisionism without acknowledgment.
It was in England that Strauss now under-took the demonstration that Hobbes was the theoretical fount of a levelling modern individualism. Appearing in 1936, The Political Philosophy of Hobbes argued that the revolution wrought by Hobbes was to replace the classical vision of a political order founded on philosophical reason and shaped by aristocratic honour with a doctrine of sovereign power motivated by fear and fabricated from will: a construction built on the marshlands of ‘his denial of any gradation in mankind’, because he could conceive of ‘no order – that is, no gradation in nature’. Commended to the English reader by the impeccably liberal Ernest Barker (who performed the same service for Oakeshott’s survey of contemporary political doctrines soon afterwards, forming an incongruous trait d’ union between the two men), Strauss’s book was on the whole well received by Oakeshott, as the most original study on Hobbes to have appeared in many years. But whereas for Strauss the remedy to Hobbes’s defiled naturalism lay intact in the ancient wisdom set forth by Plato, for Oakeshott the incoherence of Hobbes’s naturalistic doctrine of will was only to be overcome in the modern reunion of reason and volition in Hegel and Bosanquet – even if their synthesis remained to be completed.
In 1938 Strauss moved to the United States, where after the war he occupied a chair at Chicago in the same period that Oakeshott was at the LSE. There he produced the remarkable series of works – in form, an oracular retrospect of the history of philosophy from Socrates to Nietzsche, in effect, a systematic political doctrine – which has since nurtured the most distinctive and strong-minded school of American conservatism. There were two principal themes in this oeuvre. A just political order must be grounded in immutable demands of natural right. Nature, however, is inherently unequal. The capacity to discover truth is restricted to a few, and to endure it exhibited by scarcely more. The best regime will therefore reflect differences in human excellence, and be led by an appropriate élite. But although the highest virtue is philosophical contemplation of the truth, this does not mean – contrary to a superficial reading of the Republic – that the just city will be ruled by philosophers. For philosophy gazes without faltering, not only at the necessary conditions of political order, discomfiting as these may be to demotic prejudice, but at the far more terrible realities of cosmic disorder: the absence of any divine authority, the delusion of any common morality, the transience of the earth and its species – every insight that religion must deny and society cannot survive. Unfolded at large, these truths would destroy the protective atmosphere of any civilisation and with it the conditions for the pursuit of philosophy itself.
Esoteric wisdom and exoteric opinion must therefore remain distinct, on pain of mutual destruction. Leisured gentlemen instructed in rule – but not raised to truth – by philosophers should uphold a rational order of political stability against levelling temptations. Under their rule, theoretical knowledge could find institutional shelter, without dangerous side-effects on civic practice. In keeping with his teaching, which now enjoined such prudence on the philosopher, Strauss made, during the Cold War, the concession – earlier unthinkable – of describing these views as a contribution to liberalism: albeit ‘in the original sense’, understood by the ancients, of a ‘liberality’ that was another name for ‘excellence’. In the campus emergency of 1968 he even publicly endorsed Richard Nixon. In general, however, Strauss eschewed official bromide or partisan pronouncement; that was the role not of the teacher but of the taught.
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