Peregrine Worsthorne, then associate editor and columnist with the ultraconservative London Daily Telegraph wrote in response to a survey conducted on the centenary of Marx’s death: “Being very conscious of the existence of the class-war, I have to admit to being very influenced by Marx without whose writings this idea would never have become so all pervasive. ... I am a Tory-Marxist, in the sense of accepting the need to take sides in the class war, even if, so to speak, on the other side.” More recently, Niall Ferguson has commented in an interview: “Something that’s seldom appreciated about me...is that I am in sympathy with a great deal of what Marx wrote, except that I’m on the side of the bourgeoisie.”
However–and where conservatism becomes interesting–in so far as it supports the existence of capitalism, it embodies a contradiction which has from time to time produced intellectually fruitful results. Alasdair MacIntyre writes of Burke that he “tried to combine adherence in politics to a conception of tradition which would vindicate the oligarchical revolution of property of 1688 and adherence to the doctrine and institutions of the free market”. However, the social stability and cohesion which conservatives regard as desirable are constantly being disrupted and dismantled by the operation of capitalism–the very qualities for which Marx and Engels gave it a qualified welcome in the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”.
Expanding on MacIntyre’s discussion, Peter McMylor has pointed out that supporters of the “peculiar institution” in the South before the Civil War like George Fitzhugh–admirers of Burke to a man–nevertheless drew the logical conclusion from his position, which was to refuse the intrusion of the industrial market society emerging in the North and rely instead on the stability of a rural one based on slavery. Hayek considered himself a “Burkean Whig” in relation to Burke’s economic thought, with its idolatrous reverence for “Market” (with a capital M and without the definitive article), but never a conservative. Hayek naturally draws on Burke’s most extreme statement in support of “Market”, Thoughts and Details on Scarcity. On other occasions, however, Burke showed a pained awareness of the destructive power of modernity in a more general sense. David Bromwich rightly points out: “We now accept with little challenge the arrangements of a commercial democracy and an empire at once commercial and military. Burke is a historian of their human cost. No other writer has seen so comprehensively what was gained and what was lost with coming of political modernity.”
Marxists would dispute whether “no other writer” had observed these contradictions, since Marx himself did–indeed, as we shall see, this is one of the points where his views overlap with those of conservatives; but there is no doubt Burke was one of the first writers to do so. What is uncomfortable for socialists is that some of Burke’s finest expressions of this position are in Reflections on the Revolution in France, occurring in the very passages in which he laments the treatment of Marie Antoinette at the hands of the mob and mocks “this new conquering empire of light and reason”: “On the scheme of this philosophy, which is the offspring of cold hearts and muddy understandings, and which is as void of solid wisdom, as it is destitute of all taste and elegance, laws are to be supported only by their own terrors, and by their own concern, which each individual may find in them, from his private interests. In the groves of their academy, and at the end of every visto, you see nothing but the gallows.”
The reflex among Marxists, including this author, is to defend the French Revolution, even the Terror, against attempts to treat it as either a non-event or an explosion of irrational millenarian fury. But while this is still necessary, it needs to be undertaken while simultaneously bearing in mind that the French Revolution was not simply a series of great popular
interventions, but the gateway to capitalist development in France with all the violence against the popular masses which that involved–a violence all the more unconstrained because of its rationality. Burke saw something of these possibilities–at least enough such that treating him as the founding father of modern “revisionism” is simply wrong. On the contrary, it was precisely because he had no doubts about the bourgeois nature of the Revolution that he feared the destructive power of its triumph and influence.
The consequent “fear of modernity” gives conservatism whatever vitality it still retains as a critical intellectual tradition. Quite early in the neoliberal era, in 1987, two conservatives, the British Max Beloff and the American Irving Kristol, debated the future of their tradition in the pages of Encounter. In response to an accusation by Kristol that British conservatism was tainted with association with an aristocratic remnant, Beloff responded by saying that the threat to its survival “is not its links with the aristocratic tradition, but its alleged indifference to some of the abuses of capitalism. It is not the dukes who lose us votes, but the ‘malefactors of great wealth’”. A more recent example by a self-described “true conservative”, Brian Appleyard, writes of the immunity granted to banks and other financial institutions responsible for triggering the present crisis that “the failure forcibly to end these abuses as a disgrace and a grave threat to the social peace we crave”.
These affinities between Marxism and conservatism go deeper than simply a shared concern over the effects of neoliberalism. Their shared ambivalence towards capitalist modernity itself is one of these affinities. Consequently, although Marx and Engels are scathing about “feudal socialism” in the “Manifesto”, treating it as a variety of “reactionary socialism”, they conceded that “at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history”. Thomas Carlyle is mentioned as one of the representatives of this school–although there was nothing remotely “feudal “ about him any more than there was about Burke–and Engels had earlier drawn on Carlyle’s work in his pioneering study of the English working class.
There are also deeper philosophical similarities. Arguing from a Marxist perspective, Andrew Collier strikes an authentically conservative note by pointing out that “the correct method in political philosophy” is not “to construct an ideal of human life and then work out what political arrangements would be most conducive to it”. Burke would not have disagreed and, as this suggests other parallels. Alan Shandro points out: “Marx’s political thought bears a structural similarity to conservative thought in that each seeks to ground its political program upon the study of society as it actually exists, rather than upon a vision of human nature considered apart from society.” This was one reason why Max Weber praised the “Manifesto of the Communist Party”, “it refrains...from moralizing”: “It simply does not occur to the authors...to rant about the baseness and wickedness of the world. Nor do they think it their task to say, ‘This or that is arranged in a particular way in the world and it should be arranged differently, namely in such and such a way’.”
The key to their inner connection between conservatism and Marxism lies in the initial premises with which both begin, namely a set of assumptions about human nature, as Collier explains: “Marx reaches his revolutionary conclusions from the usually conservative premises that society is an organism and that the task of politics is to serve the good of the organism, not to realize certain ideals. ... What he shares with conservatism is his belief that starting from where we are rather than from an idea of where we want to do, and asking what can be done, not for the good of people in general, but for the good of these people, with these traditions, these needs, these skills, these resources.” There are, of course, limits to these parallels: “What divides him [Marx] from conservatism is his belief that the existing society involves contradictions, which prevent it from flourishing, and which can only be eliminated by changing the system. It is definitive of contradictions that they are both essential to the society of which they are part, and destructive of it.”
The final sentence in this passage suggests where conservatism and Marxism and actually divide, and why the former is mostly blind to what it shares with the latter. But even at its most perceptive, conservative critiques cannot offer an alternative adequate to the task, which would involve embracing a revolutionary solution, equally destructive–albeit from the other direction–of the very stability and order they see as threatened by capitalism.