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Conserving What, Exactly?

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books and culture

Conserving What, Exactly?

Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism is an ambitious attempt to revive communitarianism as a basis for political life. December 16, 2022
Arts and Culture

Conservatism: A Rediscovery, by Yoram Hazony (Regnery Gateway, 256 pp., $29.99)

One of the perennial questions that conservatives either ask or are asked themselves is: What, exactly, is conservatism conserving? It evidently preoccupied Yoram Hazony enough to attempt an original answer in his recent book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. That subtitle is no accident. While synoptic accounts of conservatism are hardly rare—this year alone saw at least one more—his answers are atypical of the genre. Conservatism is more ambitious and less provincial than the typical conceptual history of the subject, extending well beyond the American political experience. It also functions as a companion to Hazony’s previous book, The Virtue of Nationalism. Together, they form a larger politico-philosophical project, which one might characterize as an attempt to revive communitarianism as the basis for political life.

So why a “rediscovery”? For several decades, American conservatism has referred to a somewhat unwieldy combination of social traditionalism, economic free-marketism, and hawkishness on the international front—an allegiance brokered by William F. Buckley and his numerous associates and secured by the necessities of the Cold War. This is an old story, and Hazony tells it well. 

Hazony is himself part of a newer set of right-wing intellectual entrepreneurs, including Patrick Deneen and Sohrab Ahmari, among others, who have declared this arrangement null and void. They and others have in different ways diagnosed the problem not merely as one of philosophical incoherence, borne of Cold War-era politics, but of something grander.

A common critique of contemporary American conservativism (issued from both the left and the right) was that the only thing it could really “conserve” was some variant of liberalism. Hazony and his ideological confreres have come to agree with this idea. Hence the need for a rediscovery, and also for the ambitiousness of this work, composed of four sections: distinctive treatments of the conservative disposition as they have appeared on both sides of the Atlantic over the past few centuries; an attempt to reconcile conservatism philosophically with nationalism; a synoptic overview of what Hazony views as the failures of both liberalism and conservatism in recent decades; and an autobiographical account of the path that led him to his own idiosyncratic version of conservatism. 

The second of these four sections is really the heart of the work. Here, Hazony most clearly lays out his own conservative vision: we are born into communal groups that naturally command our loyalties, the highest of which is the nation. These groups are almost always hierarchically structured, and their political and religious institutions rely on the accreted wisdom of tradition to maintain themselves.

The first section is designed to provide the intellectual and historical support for this thesis. Consequently, Hazony’s genealogy does not simply delineate a classical liberal tradition now made conservative by the passage of time. He is instead excavating an already-conservative Anglo intellectual tradition that dates back to the late fifteenth century and includes such luminaries as Sir John Fortescu, Richard Hooker, John Selden, and Edmund Burke. Burke is likely the most familiar name on this list, but Selden is in fact the most telling. He was a major exponent of what has come to be known as “political Hebraism”—an Enlightenment-era tradition that sought to discover fundamental principles of political philosophy through readings of the Hebrew Bible and other major Jewish texts. Hazony made much of the tradition of political Hebraism in his previous book, and here he explicitly identifies a nationalist ideal with its origins in the Hebrew Bible as a core principle of Anglo-American conservatism.

Does this story hold up? Hazony’s linking of conservatism and nationalism compels him to treat liberalism and nationalism as diametrically opposed. And yet it is difficult to observe the history of the development of nations and nationalism in the modern world as something independent of—much less opposed to—the development of liberalism. Across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, liberalization and nationalization tended to go hand-in-hand. Indeed, popular sovereignty—that quintessentially liberal and democratic concept—has been viewed as the necessary condition for nationalism by a range of scholars, including Bernard Yack, István Hont, Anthony Giddens, and Walker Connor. But Hazony makes no mention of popular sovereignty, and his account of liberalism across several centuries is equated with a narrowly individualist and cosmopolitan sensibility that is presently dominant.

Indeed, the book’s third section is most concerned with the dominance of contemporary progressive liberalism and the inability of conservatism to make gains against it. His proposed alternative is a restoration of the primacy of national loyalties, buttressed by local religious and cultural traditions—in our case, a Judeo-Christian biblical heritage. This will likely be the most compelling section for a sympathetic audience similarly dissatisfied with the prevailing versions of liberalism and conservatism on offer. But there is some tension here between Hazony’s general and particular claims for national conservatism.

Hazony evidently believes that, whatever society one lives in, it is generally desirable to commit oneself to the preservation or restoration of its orders. That is, conservatism is generally good, even if its particulars vary. But could there not be societies so wicked that the preservation of their ancestral customs is undesirable—as Augustine believed of the pagans? Hazony is silent on this question.

This line of thinking calls to mind Leo Strauss’s comment on Carl Schmitt’s concept of the political: “He who affirms the political as such respects all who want to fight; he is just as tolerant as the liberals—but with the opposite intention.” That is to say, for Schmitt, it matters not what the substance of conflict is, as long as conflict exists. Likewise, for Hazony, what matters is the nation as such, not the particular way of life that commands the loyalty of its members. But Hazony’s ecumenical nationalism is at odds with the beliefs of actual nationalists, who tend to think their own way of life is superior.

He makes much, for example, of the restoration of a common biblical tradition as the ground for modern government. But this abstracts quite a bit from the substance of what Christians and Jews really believe. Either the Mosaic covenant has been superseded by Christ’s promise of redemption, or it has not. And the willingness to table this all-important question in the interests of social peace is a liberal innovation (see John Locke’s “A Letter Concerning Toleration”).

The point is that any discussion of the value of conservatism (and nationalism) looks beyond itself to some evaluative standard. But what should that standard be? To some degree, Hazony squares this circle in his concluding, disarmingly candid autobiographical section. More writers should include one, especially when—as is so often the case—the impetus for their political projects is highly personal. This section best illustrates how Hazony himself understands the coherence of his project. He and the woman he would marry met at Princeton and, unhappy with prevailing mores there, made a deliberate choice to pursue a more traditional life together. They married young, she converted to Judaism, and they moved to Israel to start a family.

One can hardly gainsay either her conversion or their decision to make aliyah (repatriation to Israel). But we might broadly describe this ethos as one of traditionalist choices made within the horizon of liberalism. In other words, Hazony felt a call to live in accordance with the ways of his ancestors and found in Israel a nation in which these traditions could gain intelligibility and meaning. Thus, in his own life at least, he discovered a deep congruence between conservatism and nationalism.

Whether this experience holds for most Israeli citizens, or whether non-Jews ultimately have access to a comparable national story, is a different question. And whether his readers will discover that same unifying meaning through the pages of this book, I cannot say.

Photo by Vitezslav Vylicil / iStock

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