Impossible Conservatism
[Le Conservatisme impossible: Libéraux et réactionnaires en France depuis 1789]
by François Huguenin.
La Table Ronde (Paris), 395 pp., €21.50, 2006.

While in America, defining and redefining conservatism has long been a conservative pastime, Huguenin’s brillant book, Impossible Conservatism, published this year, goes further than offering definitions though, since he analyzes what he considers a political failure typical of France : the inability of conservative policy to offer, over a long period of time, a serious alternative to the ideology of progress. This is the main thread of the book and an interesting, if not entirely satisfactory one. For conservatism has arguably more meanings than Huguenin gives it credit. In a way, one could even go as far as saying that the Fifth Republic, the actual one founded by General de Gaulle in 1958, was conservative in its essence. It is true that observers of French life are generally more intrigued by the cultural hegemony of radical liberals after World War II and their aggressive stand against the West’s traditions than a failure of conservative politics. And yet this book helps us understand to a large extent why it is so, thanks to Huguenin’s immense effort of research and synthesis on French political philosophy, which inevitably overlaps with the history of ideas.

In the prologue, Huguenin briefly reflects on what conservatism is and asks the big question: “Is not all conservatism impossible, in the sense that everything changes, and, even if things remain, they manage to show a new face nevertheless, through the habits of time, to the extent that one could forget their permanence?” One could legitimately wonder whether this question is properly asked, in the sense that one could argue conservatism has more to do with values than concrete objects or political settlements. It goes without saying that human values are not supposed to change if they are true values: the way, for example, man today understands what is right or wrong, or God (that is, through reason guided by faith) has not departed an iota from the way it was two thousand years ago, though conclusions have differed, whereas the environment can change, at times quite dramatically, under the very persuasive pressure of new technologies or political turmoils.

Conservatism is a distinct tradition to be sure, whose origin is to be found in the reflections on the French Revolution. Russell Kirk has stated that “consciousconservatism, in the modern sense, did not manifest itself until 1790, with the publication of Reflections on the Revolution in France.” In doing so he has offered the definite date of birth of this great intellectual tradition which emphasizes traditions at the core of its philosophy of imperfection. The fact than Huguenin seems to debate whether “Right” and “Conservatism” are synonymous or not is interesting in itself, since some right-wing political movements have had little to do with conservatism. For example, the revolutionary right obsessed with the “new man” and mass propaganda. Why not simply stick to what he articulates at one point, namely that this book confronts “the two main intellectual traditions of the Right, the reactionary thought and the liberal thought?” It is important here to note the difference in meaning of the word “liberal” in France and in the United States. Whereas in America liberal philosophy is more or less synonymous with state interventions aimed at fighting economic inequalities and promoting the rights of minorities, in France it is viewed primarily as a laissez-faire policy, quite defiant of any State intervention, actively seeking at the same time moral discipline. Hence, Thatcher and Reagan are considered liberal icons in France.

However, Huguenin’s essay was much needed in France for a number of reasons. It bears more than one resemblance with Kirk’s The Conservative Mind for example. Each is a “criticism of conservative thought” which identifies Burke, the first counter-revolutionary thinker, at the origin of conservative tradition. In a way, Burke epitomizes the main difference between English and French politics, as Huguenin rightly reminds the French reader: Burke was a Whig, a member of the Liberal party, but nevertheless regarded national traditions as of valuable importance. In France, not only have liberals disregarded national traditions, but they also have been assimilating them more or less to alienating social processes: ironically, they have been more than happy to impose a new tradition, though an aberrant one, the tradition of the new.

The author has worked on the assumption that the liberal philosophy, this time in the French sense of free enterprise and moral discipline, and the reactionary one are the two main conservative schools of thought in France. If it is true that they both originated at the same time in a critical stand against the Enlightenment’s core belief in the autonomy of Man and the bloody excesses of French Revolution, the nineteenth Century, which was a century of rich and tense political experiments in France, has delivered other forms of conservative thought. Barresian conservatism, a kind of patrician philosophy that deeply influenced de Gaulle, comes immediately to mind; it is neither liberal (in the French sense) nor reactionary.

However, Huguenin is right to study both what these schools of thought have in common and where they differ, sometimes quite dramatically(such as defining what legitimizes power). Precisely because they are at the two opposite sides of the conservative spectrum, whose bedrock is an unequivocal critic of rousseauism and, more generally, of constructivist philosophy. It is worth quoting Huguenin’s sharp summary of the Enlightenment’s philosophy: “From a political viewpoint, the Enlightenment’s philosophers are concerned about demonstrating that Man, master of his life, has naturally nothing to do with communities, traditions. The Man promoted by the Enlightments stands alone.”

Interestingly, if the first trend is thought to be still politically correct, at least to a certain degree, the latter, the reactionary one, is regarded as an abnormal worldview within today’s French elite, to the extent that most would hardly imagine both schools share a common origin, and would certainly not dare to study them both at once. Bringing them together was hence quite a bold and necessary gesture, also allowing Huguenin to study numerous conservative thinkers in the process, whose reflections on modernity are still incredibly relevant.

With its obvious gift for explaining systems of ideas in a very accessible manner, it becomes apparent why, on vital issues such as the origin and the limits of sovereignty, the conservative family separated from the start into two branches, the liberal and the reactionary. Huguenin can’t help thinking it’s a pity they could not find a common ground for the greater good of the nation, hence the title of the book.

But perhaps, it is in the last chapters that he is the most convincing. If the two opposite sides of the French conservative movement couldn’t join forces in order to govern France for objective reasons, what possible solution could have been and, more importantly, could be offered from a conservative perspective? The penultimate chapter of the book, “Liberty facing Truth: the position of Catholicism,” suggests a very powerful answer in the political teaching of the Church, particularly helpful on critical issues such as civil liberties for example. In the process, Huguenin analyses some of the most influential French Catholic thinkers such as Jacques Maritain but also, less known to the general public, Montalembert, who advocated political freedom as a way of fighting tyrannies of any sort, including intellectual ones. Huguenin quotes one of Montalembert’s sayings, which might still strike a cord, despite the fact it was written 150 years ago: “The more one is a democrat the more it is necessary to be a christian.” Unlike de Maistre, who is the best known representative of the theory of absolute power (see Du pape), Maritain advocates a “city vitally Christian,” without rejecting democracy. His best contribution is arguably the reintroduction of Thomism in political thought. No doubt that after all the dead ends modernity has explored, it will consider at one stage its spiritual heritage. Maritain may well play a crucial role in rethinking politically from a Christian viewpoint in France, possibly in Europe, when modernity will have become exhausted and, no doubt, frightened of its own experiments.

In many respects Impossible Conservatism is a useful and enjoyable complement to Benoist’s General Bibliography of the Rights in France. It definitely fits into the great tradition inaugurated by Kirk in the United States. It is a pity the title comes across as somehow self-defeatist, contrasting with the elegance of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. One might have suggested a different title to the author, reminding him that “impossible” is not French!

Thierry Giaccardi is a French researcher and writer living in Northern Ireland.