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John Bruce Leonard

What Is to Be done?

In our attempt to change society, it is to men’s souls and minds that we must appeal, their view of society’s purpose rather than their view of society’s design.

The following is an expansion of my opening remarks to a recent Interregnum debate with Peter King and Martin Locker on the question which heads this essay. I thank both Peter and Martin for a most stimulating conversation, which has helped me to clarify my own views.

The question “What is to be done?” when it is posed by men who are not naturally inclined to revolution, and particularly by men who tend indeed toward respect or reverence for law and order, implies that the socio-political state of affairs, or the regime under which they live, has reached such straits that they are no longer permitted to take its future or its functionality for granted. It implies, that is to say, that the defects or vices of this regime have become more salient than its qualities. It implies, in a word, a state of crisis.

It is a particular characteristic of crisis that one is compelled to choose one’s manner of response to it; insofar as one is not willing to sacrifice one’s freedom by numbing one’s faculties through drugs or evasion, one cannot merely ignore the situation at hand. Crisis of any kind, and of the deepest kind in particular, permits of three possible responses: one can attempt to change matters for the better, one can attempt to stall or forestall the bad effects or final denouement of crisis, or one can consciously step back and let events take their course. We might refer to these three responses as activism, conservatism or withdrawal. Activism in turn can be the attempt to reconsitute a past state of affairs, or to constitute a new and future one.

The fact that we persist in discussing the vital question of what is to be done demonstrates that we all depart from a basic point of agreement: the problems we face are of a sufficient gravity that it has become irresponsible to simply ignore them.

No man in the dissident Right is blind or numb to the problems of our time. We might disagree as to the scope, the bearing or the penetration of those problems, but the fact that we persist in discussing the vital question of what is to be done demonstrates that we all depart from a basic point of agreement, which can most cautiously be stated thus: the problems we face are of a sufficient gravity that it has become irresponsible to simply ignore them, or to make believe as though they did not exist. The question which bears the weight of our disputes, then, is the question of which of the three courses outlined above is the best for us to follow here and now, in response to the crisis of our times.

A word before anything on the notion of ‘withdrawal’. By withdrawal we do not mean the attempt, say, to find a plot of land beyond the reach of the city and to tend one’s soil, live one’s days and raise one’s children as one sees fit. In a day in which having a family has become a revolutionary act, retirement to the countryside, engaging in small agriculture and husbandry, is not only in many cases eminently warranted in our day, but it can even often enough be regarded as a powerful kind of activism counter to the standing order.1 Withdrawal is rather a state of mind than a state of circumstance; it is the conscious decision to cease to seek the change or the conservation of one’s wider society. One simply ‘lives one’s life’ without troubling oneself any longer over the trends and tendencies of society, without bothering oneself over its whither and its wherefore. This might indeed be done on a farm as well as not (as for instance the practice of the Amish in the United States), but it can as easily be affected in the most modern highrise of the most populous and progressivist city. All that is required to live a life of withdrawal in this sense is a deliberate decision to ‘mind one’s own affairs’, to look exclusively after one’s grain store or one’s bank account as the case may have it, and to let the world ramble where it will.

The moral and practical validity of withdrawal depends on the moral and practical validity of the other two paths; for if there is the least chance that activism or conservatism will effect even some small good, or avert even some small evil, then only a fundamentally egotistical or radically asocial human being could in good conscience withdraw.

The political right has historically been associated more with conservation than with revolution; it is rather protective than progressive. There is good reason for this. In early modernity, the men of the right resisted change out of reverence (the defense of alter and throne); in later modernity, out of caution, prudence or cynicism as to the viability of social or political change. Conservatism appears at first glance to adopt the view that all social or political change is necessarily for the worse; but no conservative, not even the most frowningly pessimistic, can consistently hold to this position, save as he is willing to acknowledge that history has been an unambiguous and undifferentiated slide into decline, and will continue in that same unhappy direction without cessation until the miserable demise of the race. This strident pessimism would appear to contradict both good historical sense, which can readily identify alternating historical lows and historical highs, as well as the store that conservatives tend to set in the divine.

It must then be admitted by the conservative that some change is for the better. The conservative either believes that most change is for the worse, or that all deliberate human change is for the worse; he either believes that it is most sensible to leave well enough alone, or else he believes that all good change proceeds from non-human, uncontrollable and unpredictable sources, either fortune or divine intervention. It is thus the dictate of good sense or of piety to resist all change.

I freely admit that this position accords more with my sensibilities and my temperament than the position which I will here be defending; I suspect the same holds for a great many of my readers, who in better times would be wont to defend the good old times or the ancien régime. Nonetheless, it seems to me that this generally very sensible conservative mistrust of change, which might have been wholly defensible in any number of even very recent historical epochs, is today turned upon its head and made to work toward ends which are antipodal to those it seeks. I will attempt here briefly to articulate a view which I have dedicated some space to considering in other places.2

All conservatism in the last analysis is the attempt to conserve the status quo, not to say the status quo ante. The status quo in our present societies was produced, among other things, on the view that it is the structure of government rather than the men to make it up which determines the correct or healthy social or political order. This structural view of government worked with some degree of efficiency if not excellence when the regimes it produced were still peopled and ruled by comparatively virtuous or ethical human beings – which is to say, when it was still in the heady days of its youth, emerging directly from the soil of pre-modern or aristocratic regimes. But over the course of the past hundred years in particular, these structures have been coopted by greedy, self-serving or malevolent economic and political figures, who have used these structures to effect their own ends at the expense of society at large. They have been given a kind of free reign on account of the fact that the forces they wield have produced a wealth of material well-being such as the world has never known, which has blinded men to their true nature. They have seen to it that the institutions of state and economy are, through the use of law and mores, custom and ethos, inclined in a specific direction, set like a train upon specific tracks, infused vector-like with a specific tendency and aim. The status quo which the conservative seeks to preserve today is thus inherently designed, if not destined, to change; the change toward which it tends is not merely the normal and natural change destined to affect all organic societies – that becoming which is part and parcel of human existence; it is rather a deep change, a change of the regime itself. In preserving the status quo, he is preserving the engine which crushes the status quo. He can at best denounce the moral consequences of this situation, all the while defending the structures and institutions which mechanically and ruthlessly promote the same. The conservative, in attempting to resist change, finds himself caught up in it, carried away by its current. He is thus the unwilling ally, not to say dupe, of the forces he would resist.

The more strongly the powers that be attempt to close their grip around this human clay, which they have hubristically believed they could mould as they saw fit, the more it squeezes through their fingers.

But this, while it might demonstrate that conservatism is not a viable stance at present, does not demonstrate that activism is any better; the prudent or honorable man today might be duty-bound to withdraw, to tend his garden alongside Epicurus or Candide and to leave the world to its fate.

Let us take up the conservative’s objection to activism, then. The conservative argues, and must argue, that change tends to the worse. It is not sufficient for him to contest that change is futile, or that nothing the activist can do can alter the state of affairs; to say nothing of other concerns, there may be inherent nobility in making a last stand at Thermopylae, or in drinking our hemlock like men in the daylight rather than fleeing the city like thieves in the night. But to argue that change tends to damage rather than improve society would appear to deny the distinction between good rulers and bad rulers, or to reduce that distinction to the impoverished dichotomy between inactive conservative rulers on the one hand and active progressive rulers on the other. This obviously cannot be maintained historically; there have evidently been good kings, lords, generals, dictators, emperors, conquerors, presidents, etc. who have intervened steadfastly in their societies and have achieved beneficial results for the commonweal thanks to their very activism. The conservative then must rather claim that the powers these good rulers employ, or the precedent that they set, are likely to be abused by bad rulers, who are either more numerous than good rulers, or who are capable of doing more harm than good rulers are of doing good. The conservative today can offer as the prime, and weighty, historical evidence for his position the entirety of the modern period, which represents the most radical attempt in all of history to actively intervene in human affairs, and has led in consequence to the the most radical crisis in all of Western history. Activism would appear for that reason to result in aggregate ill: that man is wise who deafens himself to the siren’s call toward social or political transformations he can neither adequately predict nor long control.

If we have not rediscovered the central importance of political prudence over the last five hundred years of European history, it is unlikely we have learned anything at all from them. Nonetheless, even granting that modernity has primarily brought retrogression in politics or society, it must equally be noted that modernity has worked, if not in a unitary, at least in a generally consistent, direction. All of the regress which modern societies have caused in their attempts to improve upon themselves have been bent upon the polestar of modernity, what we might call the liberal or egalitarian or progressivist polestar. The retrogression of modern activism might be caused precisely by the errors inherent in this aim or tendency, some flaw in the placement of that very star. It might well be that activism in the opposite direction – the activism, not of the many, but of the few, which works in conscious opposition to modern principles – might itself represent movement, not downward, but upward. And it is impossible to know, before long trial has been made, how this might benefit society as a whole, or what statesmen, as opposed to politicians, it might educate or enable.

Beyond this, the stance suggested by withdrawal – this idea that all attempts to change or to conserve the present state of affairs must result in greater harm than good – is open to two serious objections. In the first place, it essentially represents resignation in the face of the powers that be, an acknowledgement that the forces of Modernity have won or cannot be stopped by human resistance alone, and that the only valid reaction in the face of this juggernaut is to ignore it or to distance oneself from it and to get away, as one is able. But this ‘away’ is quickly shrinking in the world; there are ever fewer places untouched by the influence and the grip of modern society. If it is true that Modernity is victorious and will continue to expand, these places well might disappear altogether. The idea that one, through activism, could possibly cause ‘damage’ in such a state of affairs therefore appears inherently absurd. The resignation underpinning withdrawal is a total resignation, a resignation that must allow the final futility of its own attempt. The stance of withdrawal is therefore open to the charge of cowardice, if not of hypocrisy; for is it not more honourable to put up even bootless resistance against a bad inevitability, than to submit slavishly to the powers that be?

In the second place, the critique made by the proponents of withdrawal to the present state of affairs is always a critique of the here and now, of what stands immediately before us and around us. But it has already been acknowledged that this ‘here and now’ is characterized by nothing so much as ‘progress’, which is to say, feverish and ceaseless change toward the ‘better’. As our entire argument here is premised on the rejection of the very idea of that ‘better’, it goes without saying that all of us agree on this point: the ‘improvement’ sought by Modernity is in fact a secret decay; progress is in fact a movement against human nature or the human spirit. But if this position is true, progress must be damned to failure, be that failure a slow dissolution or a rapid catastrophe. The societies under which we live today are doomed sooner or later to fall to pieces, either at their centre or at their periphery; the situation already tomorrow will be perhaps radically different from the situation at hand, here and now. Thus the critique which the withdrawalist brings against the activist position cannot be considered to hold for the fullness of the future; it may even be that in the near future new possibilities will open, which are presently unforeseeable, but which can be exploited by activists of various kinds on account of the decomposition of the unnatural modernist anti-order. To withdraw means to close one’s eyes to these possibilities, to turn one’s face away from the future itself; it means to step outside of the magic circle in which work on the metapolitical or political plane can still be effected, and to submit without further ado to the ‘march of history’ no matter where that march might carry one. Worse yet, it means to surrender, not only one’s prerogative to action, but one’s capacity to understand the state of affairs of the world in which one lives. It requires of one an unmanly disregard of the political.

Let us reformulate the insight contained in this conclusion. To a cursory review, the powers of Modernity appear presently to be absolutely hegemonic. This hegemony, as every hegemony, has its interests, which it seeks ever to preserve. Yet there are forces today, which we can broadly name dissident, which attempt to critique or undermine those interests. The extant hegemony acts against dissident movements in a variety of ways that it is needless to list here; it seeks to silence or to slander them, to cast them into the shadows of illegality or disrepute. Thus it preserves itself as hegemony. But this very reaction demonstrates that the hegemony feels threatened by the dissidents of our day; it is not an absolute hegemony, but only a partial or a relative hegemony. Its rule is established primarily through the existence of institutions, bureaucratic and legalistic and capitalistic associations or organizations through which it exerts its power and its influence. These institutions are moving in a specific direction, and are doing so with accelerated intensity and avarice. The direction of their movement is purportedly toward the ‘end of history’ or the establishment of a homogeneous world state in which their relative or partial hegemony becomes an absolute hegemony. There is an implicit claim that this movement is in fact toward the culmination, the fulfilment, the consummation of history.

Rather than providing for the unity of the supposed ‘human race’, the proponents of the ‘liberal order’ are forcing the fragmentation and conflict of specific human groups.

Yet it is clear even at this relatively early stage in their attempt that the ‘end of history’ is identical to the suppression or obliteration, not the realization or consummation, of human nature, through the advent of innumerable egalitarian laws, policies, mores and constructions, and through the increasing substitution of the artificial and mechanico-technological for the organic and the spiritual. Rather than providing for the unity of the supposed ‘human race’ under a single morality and unitary worldview, the proponents of the ‘liberal order’ or the ‘homogeneous world state’ or the ‘open society’ are forcing the fragmentation and conflict of specific human groups, and are undermining their own ability to peacefully attain the very ends that they seek. They constrain themselves to use force in order to forge the homogeneous world state, which cannot help but cause reaction in a directly contrary direction from all those who feel threatened by the same. But then the world state they seek will be anything but homogeneous. The more strongly they attempt to close their grip around this human clay, which they have hubristically believed they could mould as they saw fit, the more it squeezes through their fingers. Their initial attempt to build upon the rock of prior times and of human nature itself forces incongruities in their architecture; thus, the institutions that they have raised up to now to undergird this brave new world begin to crumble, and are in increasingly evident need of substitution beginning from the depths, from new artificial fundaments of cold iron; but to lay such beneath the societies of man requires the rubbling of everything that has been built hitherto. A time of chaos is required before the age of the new order may arise; but from chaos, anything may come.

For these reasons, no one can a priori reject the possibility of healthful and sane movement toward the re-enstatement of a natural or organic society. This movement cannot come, or cannot come predominately, through the preservation of the standing order. Yet despite our scepticism regarding the viability of conservatism today, we are not entitled to neglect its lessons. There seems on the face of it something contradictory in the idea of attempting a necessarily artificial and merely human establishment of a natural order. The idea that a pre-planned system can take the place of an organically emergent regime is itself a thoroughly modern fiction, the awful consequences of which are the very fires which presently lick at our feet. Then we must avoid falling into the trap of proposing a concrete and detailed plan, communist-wise, for a future social order, whether this plan be one we find existing yesterday, or one we invent wholesale, or one that we cobble together from fragments retrieved from the dustbin of history; no such plan, imposed upon society, could result in anything even halfway natural, not to speak of fully human or tendingly divine. Rather than aiming to alter the ‘policies’ or the ‘institutions’ or the ‘systems’ or even the written constitutions of society, as if these were primary and causative, we should be aiming to alter the aims and the organic constitutions of society. It is to men’s souls and minds that we must appeal, their view of society’s purpose rather than their view of society’s design. Above all, we must seek to train a new aristocracy in a new way of thinking, acting and being which is neither modern nor indeed anti-modern, but altogether unmodern: inner, sooner than outer, revolution.

For from this radical and attainable change alone could it ever be hoped that, in the coming collapse or transformation of modernity, there might arise again a land whose rich soil rears heroes, or a regime which takes its bearings by excellence or virtue.


1A prime example of this kind of ‘active retirement’ is given by the Haggard family of Primal Edge Health; though they live far from the city, no man could say they are not actively attempting its betterment, both through their videos and their online and physical publications. We will soon be publishing our recent Interregnum interview with Tristan Haggard which discusses in a practical and immediate way many of the issues discussed in this essay; the reader is also strongly encouraged to visit their website.

2 See in particular my critique of conservatism, ‘Inertia in Motion’.

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