Primer On The Right: The Challenge of the Modern Right and How It Relates to the Contemporary Left
Robert E. Salyer
Many Catholics are dismissive of the Left versus Right divide, deeming it a false dichotomy – a distraction from more substantial divisions, such as the one separating the Catholic Faith from Protestantism. Admittedly, if we only understand “the Right” to mean democratic imperialism plus individualism plus Big Business, then trying to figure out the difference between right and left-wingers is a waste of time. If we realize how much of what passes for conservatism today is but yesterday’s liberalism, however, we can probe deeper to see if there are metaphysical principles at stake in the struggle between a hegemonic Enlightenment and genuine, counter-revolutionary conservatism. The latter movement is exemplified not by Mitch McConnell nor even by Donald Trump, but by diverse characters ranging from Konstantin Leontiev to Sir Robert Filmer, as well as by tradition-grounded Catholics like Evelyn Waugh, Robert Cardinal Sarah, and Saint Pius X.
Making sense of the counter-revolutionary perspective is where A Primer On The Right: The Challenge of the Modern Right and How It Relates to the Contemporary Left comes in.
In the interest of full disclosure, the author of A Primer On The Right happens to be my brother (who also happens to be the person who first introduced me to Catholic social thought, as well as to the Latin Mass.) I should also observe that the work in question is decidedly cerebral and at times challenging. Those disclaimers notwithstanding, the themes touched upon in the Primer are similar to those addressed by other Catholic political theorists such as Adrian Vermeule, R.R. Reno, and Ryszard Legutko.
A brief work – it is just under 100 pages – the Primer is reflective rather than polemical, and is aimed at defining and clarifying what the Left and Right essentially are. This goal is accomplished in part by contrasting rival notions of progress.
For the Left,
Progress means the increasing willingness and ability of individual persons to live without inherited, discovered, or revealed purpose. People must make their own purposes, be their own authors, or at least find such things within themselves, they must find their desires within themselves, without recourse to supposed objective reality and meaning outside themselves. Those who require received purpose from outside themselves are examples of the deformed ‘authoritarian personality.’”
The view from the right, on the other hand, is that progress is “beneficial change,” with the caveat that this expression only means something in reference to some objective standard of truth and value. So although the rightist would concur with the leftist that it is a mark of progress for fewer women to die in childbirth, or poverty to be alleviated, the rightist has a different reason for saying so, as well as a different account of how and why such progress happens. The Right understands progress as additive: “Progress has occurred through accumulation, e.g., through the brilliance of a Copernicus added to his predecessors, through Da Vinci’s techniques with the Mona Lisa built upon those of his cave-drawing ancestors, through solar energy technology built upon the technology of coal-fired steam engines … from two people to seven billion.”
This is an extremely subtle point, one which I think bears repeating: Far from being an inherently leftist idea, authentic progress is neither more nor less than the movement of tradition. So the problem with the leftist revolutionary is not that he believes in progress, but that he misconceives progress as simply a matter of tearing things down – tearing down sexual distinctions, conventional definitions of marriage, national identity, and everything else standing in the way of individual yearnings. The truth is that admittedly challenging, often frustrating, occasionally even oppressive things like community, hierarchy, and heritage are inescapable for the flourishing of individuals. On a fundamental level, Progress is about diligently building up, or at most cautiously correcting – not about impatiently smashing in the expectation that utopia will spontaneously emerge from the rubble.
A straightforward example would be the liturgical innovations of the 1960’s. The rhetoric used to sell said innovations notwithstanding, in practice the changes turned out to have less to do with adding insights gleaned from the modern experience than with purging from Catholic memory the myriad experiences and perspective of previous generations. While a case might be made that the traditional Mass needed tweaked here and there, the innovators approached the Mass – and much else of Catholic culture – as if its form and structure were the bars of a prison to be broken, rather than the walls of a house onto which new wings might be constructively added.
Returning to the Primer, one of its most timely arguments pertains to the connection between radical relativism and egalitarianism. Although many Catholics note the secular left’s refusal to acknowledge natural law and perennial values, few have noted how this refusal goes hand in hand with the fixation upon equality:
Without the capacity to ground hierarchy or a structure of values on objective Truth, equality replaces inequality as the default. This result was made the more inevitable by the fact that, while what constitutes the Good may always be up for debate post-Enlightenment, the same has not proven necessarily true as to what constitutes Evil. We do not know the Good, but we do seem to know universally what we don’t like: Pain and deprivation. We are for nothing. But we are against pain and deprivation, and these are universally equal concerns. Goods, on the other hand, are for the post-Enlightened man, simply subjective.
Since for the Left “no overarching human archetype or mode of life is superior, and no objective measure above that of the individual homo sapiens is recognizable,” the obvious hurt feelings of girls excluded from altar service will take precedence over the less stark, less empirically-verifiable goods which are achieved by keeping the altar an all-male affair.
Interestingly enough, the right-winger who responds to the Left arrives at conclusions very similar to those of the tradition-minded Catholic. For “the Right will not foreswear pursuing the Good” because “on the island of the blind, the one-eyed man is king by right.” Agnosticism about ultimate goals is simply not a legitimate – or even coherent – option. True, those on the Left have a point when they observe how limited and flawed man’s understanding is with respect to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, as well as when they note the possibility of intolerance and fanaticism.
The Right asks in turn however, how is this more sanguinary than modern conflicts where objective Truths and Goods are absent as goals? How are wars fought to liberate a people from oppression (at least ostensibly), or fought pursuant to some kind of Hegelian dialectic, less bloody? Or how is the Right’s position more sanguinary than the age-old conflicts driven simply by natural egocentrism—the only principle remaining when metaphysical Truth is banished?
More to the point, just because Truth can be dangerous and just because we mortals do not comprehend Truth fully does not mean we should emulate Pilate and pretend never to have encountered Truth at all; just because we only see through a glass darkly does not mean we may order society and our lives as if we were entirely blind. There are superior archetypes and modes of life, and the refusal to concede this only results in logical (and moral) absurdities.
I can say with confidence that anyone interested in critical studies of advanced liberal modernity will find this slender volume rewarding and thought-provoking.
Jerry Salyer has contributed to publications such as Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, New Oxford Review, Crisis, Abbeville Institute, Imaginative Conservative, and Catholic World Report.