The Case for Conservatism
by Francis Graham Wilson,
with a new introduction by Russell Kirk.
Transaction Publishers [1951, 1969, 1990, 2011],
74 pp., $20 paper.

Forty years have passed since Francis Wilson first published the three lectures contained in this elegant reprint edition, and it is important to remember the context in which they first appeared. Conservatism in 1951 was not yet a respectable political designation, especially in the precincts of academe where Wilson, a political scientist, toiled. Indeed, the regnant opinion among American intellectuals of the time was that only liberalism could engage serious minds and that conservatism was merely an expression of prejudice, resentment, or avarice.

That the “conservative spirit in politics” is both intellectually defensible and politically imperative was the thesis which Professor Wilson took upon himself to prove in these lectures, first delivered at the University of Washington. Despite the daunting magnitude of his task. Wilson could take some comfort from the changing circumstances of his listeners. Sobered by liberalism’s failures and fragmentation at home, and disturbed by the relentless aggression of Communism abroad, many American academics in the early 1950s were willing, if only fleetingly, to concede that perhaps a “conservative moment” had arrived. For a largely liberal audience, then—skeptical but not implacably hostile—Wilson initially formulated his case. In the process he helped to catalyze the emergence of an articulate, intellectual Right in the Cold War era.

According to Wilson, conservatism is “primarily a spirit animating political behavior,” a “way of life,” and “a manner of judging life.” It is not, however, lacking in “primary values” or certain permanent characteristics, of which he identified five. First, conservatism attempts to discern a “pattern in history” that will yield “clues” as to what is feasible or infeasible in the “management of politics.” Second, unlike those on the Left who consider man to be perfectible if only his institutions can be reformed or destroyed, conservatives hold that man by his very nature is a mixture of good and evil, of rationality and irrationality. He is “a child of God” who is sinful yet also “capable of living up to the standards of reason, provided he is taught to do so, and provided, in Christian thought, that he is aided by grace.” Man, in other words, can improve, but the process is slow; utopia is a costly illusion. Third, conservatives believe in a fixed “moral order in the universe,” a “criterion of life” applicable to all people regardless of their social class. Fourth, conservatives insist that the power of government must be limited and that the “preservation of liberty” depends in part upon “the moderation of the impact of government on the individual.” Finally, conservatives defend the institution of private property, which they regard as crucial for the survival and “moral function” of the family.

Having defined his terms, so to speak, Wilson was anxious to demonstrate that the conservative approach to politics was critically relevant to contemporary problems. In this respect The Case for Conservatism, examined a generation later, displays some of the marks of a livre de circonstance. Time and again, for instance, Wilson alluded to the struggle in the late Forties and early Fifties to arrest the march of militant Communism in western Europe. The “idea of an inevitable class struggle,” he remarked at one point, “is the most terrible illusion of our time.” The “primary characteristic of political conservatism” at present, he asserted, was “its defense of traditional democracy” on an “international scale.” While discussing the American Revolution he declared that “there is no mystery in the conservative as a revolutionary, for it has often been so. It is so today among those who would preserve the continuity of Western society against the encroachment of Slavic ideology.” Much of Wilson’s expressed concern in these lectures for constitutional government, free elections, and “social reconstruction” arose from his recognition that the fate of Europe and of the civilization of the West were imperiled as never before by totalitarianism.

Wilson also undertook to identify the conservative contribution to America’s own political development and thereby to refute the glib contention that only liberalism had rooted itself on these shores. Conservatism “has served its function in America and it has made our history,” he argued. Not surprisingly, he extolled The Federalist (which he ranked with the works of Edmund Burke in creating “the modern conservative spirit in politics”), and he called attention to the contribution of Paul Elmer More (the “greatest of our intellectual conservatives”). He noted approvingly that “the principles of economic progress,” as expounded bycertain American economists, comprised “one of the lasting elements in American conservative theory.” He shrewdly observed that an essential component of “the defense of the American system has been the promise of opportunity to the willing hand, and the assurance that ordinary men can and do share in our wealth more than in other lands.”

Wilson, of course, realized that principled conservatives can never hold out the prospect (as irresponsible radicals can) of the complete eradication of pain and tragedy from the human condition. Still, he sensed the importance of providing every member of a society with “the hope that progress can be made,” and he recognized that America historically had offered such hope. Without succumbing to utopian temptations and fantasies, he knew that conservatism as a public philosophy must be committed to the possibility of social betterment.

In the course of his lectures Wilson made a number of quietly provocative observations that foreshadowed later cleavages in the conservative movement. He disparaged laissez-faire economics as a doctrine just as “millenarian” as Marxism and stressed that postwar conservatism, while necessarily anti-socialist, must accept changes in “economic arrangements.” He taught that conservatism “learns to forget the lost cause and the irrelevant tension.” In the face of Communist tyranny he unabashedly exhorted conservatives to defend “the democratic tradition” and pointedly dismissed the aristocratic and monarchic conservatism of prewar Europe as an ineffectual anachronism. At the conclusion of his second lecture he said bluntly:

Whatever else it may be, conservatism, as a spirit in politics, is an eternal demand for political moderation, and for an evolving continuity, in which reform may be attained without the psychiatric fury of nationalism or the intransigent hatred of revolutionary Marxism.

Such “middle way” sentiments, of a kind espoused by many postwar Christian Democrats in western Europe, could not have pleased those on either side of the Atlantic who were seeking a more fervent and formulaic basis for political battle.

Indeed, reading this volume more than a generation after its appearance, one is struck by how undoctrinaire and unprogrammatic it is. Wilson’s case for conservatism was not a plea for a specific set of public policies. In fact, he argued, conservatism is decidedly not a “fixed program” at all, and much conservative literature (including that of the early nineteenth century, when modern conservatism was born) is now obsolete. One is struck, too, by the unpolemical character of the author’s prose. In part, no doubt, this quality reflects his temperament and training. Wilson was a political theorist, not a policy analyst or media commentator. While a scholar of sturdy conviction, he was evidently disinclined to indulge in rancorous debate. Moreover, as an avowed conservative in a profession dominated by antithetical currents of thought, he perhaps deliberately eschewed confrontation for conversation, the better to make himself heard.

In any case, forty years later what most impresses this reviewer is not the overall content of these lectures (some of which is now dated) but the epigrammatic insights one encounters along the way. For example, these observations by Wilson:

… the conservative defense of the moral order, the moral order that has emerged from Jewish, Roman, and Christian tradition, is the only answer we have today to the corrosive doctrine of the class struggle.… Ideas and a common spirit can unite a people, but material interests most surely divide. And if we are spiritual eunuchs it is easy for us to kill each other in a struggle for unlimited power and for the wealth that the common efforts of all may have produced in any society.

The conservative criticism of our age is that some liberals have turned … from humanity, from the expansion of freedom for the individual, to a culture bolshevism that can only be expressed in moral trickery and tyranny.

If we seek for the ultimate conflict between the conservative and the revolutionary spirit in politics, we shall find it in our conceptions of human nature.

Political tracts rarely transcend their origins, and political books that are both temperate in tone and unprogrammatic in prescription are not apt to become best sellers. The Case for Conservatism was not a best seller in 1951, and it was soon overshadowed by other contributions to the scholarly canon of the Right. Nevertheless, it is good to have this volume back in print. Francis Wilson was one of the founding fathers of the post-1945 conservative renascence. In these pioneering lectures he distilled much wisdom and helped to give an intellectual movement its identity.  

Dr. George Nash was at the time of writing in 1991 still working on his multivolume biography of Herbert Hoover, of which two volumes had been published by Norton already: The Engineer: 1874–1914; The Humanitarian: 1914–1917.