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Radical Conservative

Reflections on the Causes of Human Misery and upon Certain Proposals to Eliminate Them

by Barrington Moore Jr.
Beacon, 201 pp., $7.95

Intellectual “moods” are mysterious. How they arise, how they spread, we cannot easily say either at the time or afterward. Yet who would deny that they affect intellectual life with enormous intensity while they last? We knew such a mood in the 1950s—bland, self-assured, pragmatic; again in the 1960s—violent, self-lacerating, visionary; and if I am to judge by the tone of those writers with whom I feel a particular sympathy (and indeed, by my own tone), we are experiencing the onset of a new mood in the 1970s. This new mood is conservative, although not in the usual sense in which that word is used in political debate. I would describe it as the rediscovery of a perspective on human events that highlights certain aspects of history—of “human nature,” if I may risk the term—to which both the liberal mood of the 1950s and the radical mood of the 1960s paid insufficient attention, if in fact either paid it any attention at all.

The aspect of human experience to which this new conservative view directs our eyes is sobering in the extreme. It dwells on the persistence of human folly in the face of heroic efforts to enlighten it with reason; on the perversity and cruelty that provide an insistent basso ostinato to the melodies of progress; on the extraordinary ease with which human sacrifice can be marshaled for war and the tremendous difficulties of adducing it for the tasks of peace; on the susceptibility of men and women at all levels of society to the delusions of nationalism or organized religion, and their virtual immunity from any sense of human “brotherhood” with men and women of another territory or faith.

This view of human history is surely not peculiar to our time. We find it in Asian legend and epic, in Greek and Roman drama and history, and elaborated in “modern” times in such diverse writers as Burke, Nietzsche, Spengler, Weber, Freud. Yet the contemporary mood of conservatism has a tendency that sets it off sharply from that of the past. Indeed, in two senses of the word, it is a radical conservatism. It is radical, first, in that it sympathizes with large-scale institutional changes designed to lessen the evils of the human condition. This differentiates it from the conservatism of the past, much of which seems an effort to comfort those who benefited from the existing distribution of misery, to paraphrase a sentence from Barrington Moore’s new book.

Second, it is radical in that it goes to the root of things. This latter reason is why it departs so markedly from the liberal or conventionally radical moods of the recent past, for it asks terrible questions before which these other views are mute: Why does mankind refuse to make the changes, often within easy grasp, that might rid it of the oppression which it has known from earliest times? Why do human beings display the laziness, the cowardice, the stupidity, inertia, or indifference that allow things to go on as they are?

I begin with this preamble because Barrington Moore’s book seems to me to express perfectly this contemporary current of radical conservatism. Readers of Moore’s previous work, Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy, will know that his far-ranging historical researches have been marked with a strong sense of sympathy for the oppressed of the world, tempered by an emphasis on the complexity of things that has so often prevented the aspirations of the lower classes from being realized. History to Moore has never displayed a simple linear or even dialectical pattern, but has been, rather, a cockpit in which diverse economic, social, and political forces contested to bring about the different results we find in England, France, the United States, India, China.

This point of view toward history as an essentially indeterminate struggle contains an implicit judgment about the subject matter of history—mankind—that becomes the explicit theme of his present book. It is here that Moore’s radical conservatism reveals itself, partly in a distrust of the liberal or radical belief in the long-run triumph of rationality as the guiding principle for man, partly in the recognition of attributes of human behavior that are not only irrational but positively destructive. Thus there is a doubt and anguish in his work that is totally lacking in liberalism and radicalism—a doubt and anguish that do not necessarily negate the practical conclusions of these views but that deepen and darken them.

It is much easier to describe the subject matter of Moore’s book than to “criticize” it. The chapter titles convey the questions he considers: “On the Unity of Misery and the Diversity of Happiness,” “Of War, Cruelty, and General Human Nastiness,” “Of Hunger, Toil, Injustice and Oppression,” “Of Heresy, Intellectual Freedom, and Scholarship,” “Of Predatory Democracy: the USA,” and “Some Prospects for Predatory Democracy.” Thus the book proceeds from the general to the specific, commencing with an examination of such human tendencies as aggression, xenophobia, and hierarchy, and concluding with a somber analysis of the condition and likely outcomes of American capitalism today.

It is another thing, however, to give a summary of Moore’s views on almost any of these topics. This is not because he does not have “views”—as I have indicated, he has very strong beliefs—but because it is the complexity of the reasoning behind these views, and the extreme self-scrutiny to which they are subjected, that make them interesting. Unlike most of his historical predecessors (not to mention the conventional “conservatism” of such writers as William Buckley), Moore does not write from a position of self-righteousness and intellectual security. There is hardly an assertion that he does not qualify, hardly a statement that he does not turn over and re-examine. This is no way lessens the power of the final result but gives it a quality that makes it of contemporary importance.

Since this very quality is what distinguishes his ideas, let me present some samples of it, from various chapters:

How much suffering do revolutionaries have a right to impose upon present generations for the sake of the happiness of future generations? As Lenin asked, by what yardstick can one measure the amount of repression necessary for the victory of a revolution? Though the answer is inherently uncertain, to deny that a criterion can exist at all removes all possible limits on arbitrary cruelty. Not even the worst dictator goes that far. He has to retain the support of at least some followers. Since such judgments occur, and, to repeat, are unavoidable because the decision not to make a revolution also has consequences for present and future suffering, there must be better and worse ways of making them. [Pp. 25-26]

According to familiar observation, the existence of an enemy provides a firm basis, perhaps even an essential basis, for cooperation among members of the human species…. Though the connection is most obvious in the case of international politics…one can notice its workings down to the most trivial levels of interdepartmental rivalries in a federal bureaucracy or an academic community. Voluntary and spontaneous aspects of cooperation on a specific task without a human enemy display the same feature of team sentiments, loyalties, group cohesiveness—along with sharp rejection of any individual whose slackness endangers the common effort. A family trying to pack the car before leaving on vacation and a group of neighboring farmers working on each other’s fields to get in the hay before a storm show these traits very clearly. In these situations the task that has to be performed takes on so many characteristics of a common enemy as the basis for group solidarity that I at least suspect that human cooperation is impossible without some sort of hostile and resisting target for the group’s collective efforts. [Pp. 31-32]

Moral issues are an unavoidable aspect of politics but they are not the whole of it. Through the fact that amoral and immoral methods promise advantage in political struggles, all politics becomes tainted with immorality. Meanwhile, the attempt to avoid this taint, the search for purity, can become the greatest immorality of all, in the sense of causing the greatest suffering, because it leaves the political arena open to those with the fewest scruples. [P. 39]

The most it is possible to assert with some confidence is that a completely closed elite that rejected the brilliant and ambitious from the lower classes would waste large reservoirs of talent and sooner or later cause the accumulation of dangerous resentments, especially under modern conditions. But a completely fair society in which no individual could blame circumstances beyond his control for his failures and disappointments might just as easily lead to the accumulation of resentments that would tear the social fabric apart. [P. 64]

Perhaps I am being too pessimistic in ruling out as a social and psychological impossibility a society in which the mass of the population devotes no more than a tiny fraction of its time to “socially necessary” and “useful” work. Nevertheless I do doubt that the mass of human beings are capable of just enjoying themselves most of the time, at any rate in a way that makes them tolerable to each other. At least the illusion of a wider and deeper purpose seems necessary. What illusion? [Pp. 159-160 fn]

As I hope these quotations make clear, to outline Moore’s “positions” on the successive subjects described in his chapters serves little purpose. Let me only say that for the United States he foresees many possibilities—none of them clearly predictable—ranging from anarchic breakdown, through the seizure of power by a small minority, to the attainment of “genuine,” albeit limited, reform. But his object is not to predict the future: “[I do not] believe that prediction is really the proper task for a social scientist, who misunderstands his subject when he imitates the astronomer.” Rather, it is to set forth the conditions under which differing outcomes might become historically feasible, to the extent that the ill-understood nature of social causation allows us to make even such tentative predictions.

The difficulty with such a somber view, of course, is that it can be interpreted as a call to resignation, an acquiescence in the persistence of human misery, and a passive accommodation to it. But this is not the intent of Moore’s book. Rather, Moore poses—particularly to the radical—a test of courage far greater than that required to storm the barricades. He makes him storm the barricades in the bitter foreknowledge that the success of his efforts cannot be measured by the simple presence or absence of a momentary “victory.” As Moore asks in conclusion,

What is it we mean by the success or failure of a revolutionary movement? I have deliberately saved this question for the end. Actually there is no such thing as complete success or complete failure, only differences of degree. Yet these differences of degree have decisive importance. A revolution that is crushed by its enemies we call a failure even if its legend survives as an inspiration (perhaps a thoroughly misleading one) for later generations. On the other hand, taking power and even staying in power for a couple of generations are not by themselves sufficient grounds for us to call a revolution successful. From a longer-run standpoint it is necessary to define success as making some lasting contribution to human freedom. [P. 192]

Much as I value it, I do not wish to write a panegyric to Moore’s book. There is a tangled property to his writing that makes his arguments difficult to follow; more important, the arguments themselves—especially with regard to human nature—often strike me as being assertive rather than substantiated. Perhaps I do not think the problem of the limits and possibility of large-scale institutional change, undertaken for the purpose of lessening misery, is sufficiently separated from the different problem of the unintended consequences that so often negate the hoped-for consequences of those changes. Finally, I find missing from the book a much needed discussion of whether “progress” is a definable term, and if so, in what fields and by what means it can be best attained: the mere elevation of “freedom” to a final goal is too vague, too imprecise.

But in the end what I find myself mulling over is something more than these criticisms. It is the absence of even a hint of another mood that I believe must one day replace that radical conservatism for which Moore is so eloquent a spokesman. This is a mood of resolution, indeed of iron determination, not brought about by a solution of the moral conflicts to which Moore directs our attention but by our gradually sharpened awareness of another challenge far greater than that of preserving or expanding human freedom. This is the challenge of preserving human life itself in the face of the challenges that are now visible on the horizon but are still so distant that we can ignore them in our daily lives or even in our times of reflection.

Yet anyone who soberly calculates the realities of the population explosion, the likelihood of an eventual nuclear conflict on a global scale, or the slow but ineluctable approach of an ecological crisis that will one day confront humanity with dangers comparable only to the onset of the Ice Age (but much, much more quickly) must realize that another chapter of history remains to be written—a chapter in which the problems of alleviating misery or preserving freedom, however much they may retain their moral importance, will shrink to insignificance before the brute necessity of assuring the survival of some remnant of the species itself.

This prospect, which is so horrifying that few can bear to think about it, will call, in its time, for another mood, very different from that of radical conservatism. Ruthless, single-minded, concerned only with the prevention of extinction, it will look back on Barrington Moore’s book as the reflection of a vanished era, in which it was still possible for men to reflect on the causes of human misery rather than to fight for life with every ounce of the self-preservative force that will then be needed. But that grim future is still sufficiently far away, however rapidly we are speeding to it, so that we can afford the luxury of an inquiry into the human condition instead of subjecting ourselves to the rigors of a last-ditch effort to preserve a human condition. In this lull before the storm—a lull whose duration we cannot predict—Moore’s sorrowful and searching book speaks with the voice of our uneasy age.

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