Philosophy against Misosophy


Murray N. Rothbard



Essays by Me

Essays by Others

Samuel P. Huntington


From The American Political Science Review, 51:3, Sep. 1957, 776-787.  A reply from Samuel P. Hunting-ton, perhaps best known as the author of The Clash of Civilizations, was published in the next issue (51:4, Dec. 1957, 1063-1064) and is appended to Roth-bard’s piece hereinunder.  I can find no record of his opinion of Huntington’s reply, but would appreciate hearing from any one who knows what it was. 

Anthony Flood

January 12, 2010



Huntington on Conservatism: A Comment

Murray N. Rothbard


After cogently demonstrating that conservatism can only be a purely situational rather than ideational ideology—a defense of any existing institutions against fundamental challenge—Professor Hunting-ton ends his article by calling on liberalism to liquidate itself “for the duration.”1  Defining the challenge to American institutions as communism, Huntington urges American liberals to “lay aside their liberal ideology” and adopt conservatism as their defense until the communist threat is ended.  Yet, on his own evidence, the precedents for this advice are dismal indeed.  For everyone of the four great manifestations of conservatism he lists (the defense of the estates against the rise of absolute monarchy; the defense against Puritan dissent; the defense against the French Revolution; and the defense of the South against abolition) failed signally in its object. Since all these conservative upsurges lost to the forces of radical change, and since defense of the old order was their only purpose, Huntington’s willingness to rely on this weapon now is puzzling indeed.

But this is not all.  If conservatism is hopeless as a weapon to defend the institutional status quo, then, on Huntington’s own terms, it is also a pointless and absurd ideology, since it has no inherent ideational validity.  Perhaps the consistent failure of conser-vatism in its previous struggles with one radical ideology after another can be explained more fully. As Huntington points out, so long as existing institutions are universally accepted, there is no need for a conservative ideology of defense. Conservatism arises in reaction to the attractions of a new ideational philosophy, one necessarily radical and at variance with current institutions.  But, on Huntington’s own account, conservatism is not a rational defense of these institutions, but rather the contrary: a blindly tropistic hostility to change, whatever it may be.  Pitting a coherent ideology against a tropism will tend to provoke an unequal contest, with the ideational philosophy the victor. For men, even those who care little about constructing a philosophic system, must have some set of idea-tional principles with which to view social institutions. The deeply interested parties search for a set of principles, and the less interested are generally content to accept their principles from socially appointed leaders whom they respect.  But some set of principles must be chosen.  The necessity for this choice is indicated by Huntington’s admission that the reason the society was not previously in turmoil was that everyone had adopted the same ideational system, and only quarreled over interpretations within that system.  It was precisely the flowering of a contrasting set of principles that constituted the challenge to existing institutions.  But if society must choose some ideational viewpoint, and if conser-vatism is not ideational at all, then conservatism will necessarily fail in the struggle.  For a radical idea-tional ideology tries to convince people by the use of reason, while the conservative ideology, relying on blind instinct, can only scorn reason.  Now, conceding to the enemy the monopoly of reason is fatal, for any ideology whatever can appeal to emotions alone. The set of ideas which seems to have reason on its side possesses the great advantage of the force of conviction that, in the long run, is likely to overcome mere resistance to the new and unfamiliar.  For the once new, as Huntington himself points out, soon becomes the familiar and old; and this applies to ideologies as well as institutions.  By Huntington’s own (and accurate) definition, communism itself is rapidly becoming “conservative.”

The proper answer to the radical challenge of a new ideology is to adopt not conservatism but a contrasting radicalism, to oppose reason with reason.  If this means changing existing institutions, then so much the better.  Since Huntington is professedly a “liberal” (however the term be defined), the rational approach for him to adopt toward American institutions is to transform them to accord more nearly with the liberal ideal.  This should be the “answer” to communism, an answer in rational, ideational terms.  Since it is not arguable, blind adherence to the status quo is no “answer” at all.

Why indeed does Huntington support the existing institutions?  His article gives only brief hints, but enough to demonstrate a striking and inherent incon-sistency of conservatism: while basically situational, it is still, almost shame-facedly, ideational in part. Thus, Huntington argues for conservatism as follows: “conservatism is the intellectual rationale of the permanent institutional prerequisites of human existence.  It has a high and necessary function.  It is the rational defense of being against mind, of order against chaos, . . . of the institutional prerequisites of social order” (pp. 460, 473).  If conservatism has indeed so exalted a role, then it is not, as Huntington asserts, a purely positional ideology; it is ideational as well.  For what can be more systematic and ideational—more rational—than an assertion of the necessities of existence?  Clearly Huntington has overdrawn his case; conservatism is ideational as well as situational.

Let us examine Huntington’s six-point list of the generally agreed-upon conservative creed.  Points (2) and (6) are clearly and solely situational; the appeal to “prescription” and the presumption for settled government are purely tropistic appeals to the status quo whatever it may be.  These bear out Huntington’s thesis.  But the other points have differ-ent implications.  Point (1), that man is a religious animal, can be positional, in lending divine sanction to the status quo.  It can also cut the other way, however, by providing a buttress for the self-same universal principles of natural law that Huntington recognizes as the age-old enemy of conservatism. Point (4), that the community is superior to the individual and that human nature is the source of evil, is irrelevant to situational concerns.  It is, on the contrary, an ideational statement.  In an existent laissez-faire, individualist society, for example, such a position would imply radical, and therefore ideational, changes from current institutions.  The same is true of point (5), that men are unequal and that hierarchy is inevitable.  For example, if a few members of an Israeli kibbutz were to put forth this doctrine it would be radical indeed.  Of the six cardinal features of the conservative creed, therefore, two are situational, two are ideational, and one can be used in either way.

I have purposely held to the last his point (3), that reason should be eschewed in favor of habit and emotion—that logic should be abandoned for concrete experience—because, while situational, this doctrine holds special interest.  For it is not only situational; it is an implicit confession that the ideational strands in the defenses of existing institutions are so weak that they fail to stand up under analysis.  In short, the conservative, after putting forth ideational doctrines, refuses to defend them by the use of reason.  Apparently believing them too weak for defense, he retreats to take his stand finally upon habit and emotion and to leave reason to his enemies.  This is the ultimate and really distinguishing feature of the conservative philoso-phy.

Conservatism should either be defined as a situational or as an ideational ideology; otherwise, hopeless confusion of meanings will continue indefin-itely. If conservatism is best defined positionally, and I agree with Huntington that this is the best definition, then points (4) and (5), and probably (1), should be dropped from the catalog of conservative views. The ideational strands should be separated out, and used to form a frankly ideational and radical system.

Huntington’s necessary “prerequisites” are, then, ideational, and not conservative at all.  The footnote in which he denies the possibility of a “conservative defense of sheer chaos” and his designation of Nazi Germany as “chaos,” is an attempt to escape his dilemma (p. 459n).  For if conservatism is situational and necessary, then all existing institutions must and should be defended, including Nazi institutions when they were in existence.  Hence Huntington’s attempt to banish totalitarian societies from the rubric of “existing institutions.”  But he cannot have it both ways.  If conservatism is good, then this situational defense of the status quo is good always and everywhere, whatever institutions exist: whether they be liberal, communist, Nazi, slave, or canni-balistic.  On the other hand, if he would balk at defense of anyone set of institutions, then he has already abandoned conservatism for good and all: he has transcended the immanent and adopted the ideational.  The question, in short, is not whether he approves of Americans defending their existing institutions against challenge.  The critical question is: does he equally approve of such defense by Soviet Russia, South Africa, and Yemen?

Huntington is very severe with the New Conser-vatives.  He calls them vague as to the institutions they would defend and the enemies they would counteract.  He sees communism as the only plau-sible threat to America.  But the New Conservatives do not agree.  It seems to me that most of them are quite clear on the nature of the enemy: it is democratic socialism.  The New Conservatives therefore oppose: (1) the economic and political system of socialism, i.e., the complete control by the state of the economic and political order; and (2) the social and cultural implications of democracy, i.e., egalitarianism, mass culture, the divine right of the majority, the worship of the “common man,” etc. And hence, the New Conservatives oppose, not only the totalitarian systems abroad, but also the New-Fair Deals at home, as part and parcel of the modern wave of social democracy.  (Liberal democrats may wonder at this classification of totalitarianism under forms of Social Democracy.  But the New Conser-vatives hold that modern totalitarian movements depend peculiarly on collective support.)

Much more just is Huntington’s charge that the New Conservatives are vague about what they positively wish to defend.  The reason for this vagueness is clear, however; it stems from the utter lack of agreement among the New Conservatives, and among the contemporary Right generally, on the nature of the world they would like to see brought into being.  And, of course, Huntington is absolutely correct on one point: the New Conservatives are not really conservative at all.  They are not really defending any more, if they ever did; they are fighting against trends which have already and increasingly prevailed.  They are therefore ardent radicals, in the root sense.  But they and their critics have not realized this, or have not conceded it, partly because of the lack of agreement within their ranks. Since the New Conservatives can unite only in opposition to the enemy, and never on the positive advancement of a consistent creed, their public stance tends always to seem purely “negative” and situational.  But the positive ideational creeds are there: some New Conservatives are laissez faire individualists, some Tory feudalists, some ardent decentralists, some monarchists, etc.  Strategically, these differences tend to be buried, in order to create a Popular Front of opposition.  But the “conservative” label is a most misleading term to apply to this congeries of opposition.  The true conservatives in America today are the defenders of the current status quo.  The fact that so many former liberals have shifted to the “conservative” mantle is highly significant, for it seems to mean that liberals have begun to lose faith in the liberal ideology, and must therefore turn to tropistic conservatism as a final defense of what is.  But if historical precedents are prophetic, this means that liberalism is doomed and that either communism or one of the ideational creeds of the Right opposition bids fair to become the “wave of the future.”

1 Samuel P. Huntington, “Conservatism As An Ideology,” this Review, Vol. 51 (June, 1957), pp. 454-473.


Samuel P. Huntington’s Letter of Reply to Murray N. Rothbard


To the Editor:

Dr. Rothbard makes a number of remarks in his comment (September issue, pp. 784-7) from which I must vigorously dissent.

He argues that groups espousing the conserva-tive ideology have been uniformly unsuccessful in achieving their objectives, and he attributes this failure to the poverty of conservatism as an ideology. In the first place, ideology only influences, it does not determine the outcome of conflict between social groups.  Other factors—economic, social, military—are of equal or greater importance.  Nor, unfortu-nately, is it true, as he argues, that the more rational a political theory, the more likely it is to succeed.  If this appealing variation of the philosophy of progress were valid, Greece and Rome might still be the centers of world civilization.  Secondly, Dr. Rothbard’s history is wrong in places.  To be sure, on the Continent the medieval estates generally went down before the national monarchs and in our Civil War the South went down before the North.  But what of the other conservative efforts?  Was Hooker’s defense against the Puritan dissent a failure?  The Church of England is still the established church, and in 1689, after a century of strife between political and religious extremists, England returned to the path which Hooker had counseled.  It was Hooker, and neither Hobbes nor Winstanley, whom Locke invoked and whose viewpoint prevailed in the end.  Nor was the conservative reaction to the French Revolution a failure.  For better or for worse, the ideological, social, and military forces of the Revolution could not crack the existing structure of society in England, Germany, and eastern Europe.  The Congress of Vienna shaped the pattern of events on the Continent for a century to come.  If Appomattox was a conservative defeat, by the same token Waterloo was a conservative victory.

Dr. Rothbard argues that conservatism is inher-ently irrational; it is “a blindly tropistic hostility to change” and “on Huntington’s own account, conservatism is not a rational defense” of existing institutions.  Here he defeats himself a few sentences further on, when he quotes my description of conservatism as “the rational defense of being against mind, of order against chaos . . . .”  He assumes, but does not demonstrate, that “to oppose reason with reason” it is necessary to adopt “a contrasting radicalism,” in short, that only radicalism is rational.  He does not define what he means by “reason” and “rational,” but any reasonable definition would either invalidate his assumption or force him into a circular argument.  Evidently, there can be rational and irrational attacks on existing institutions and rational and irrational defenses of them.  Were Hooker and Burke irrational?  Has America produced any more rational political thinkers than John Adams and John C. Calhoun?  It would take quite an effort to reduce the cold logic of A Disquisition on Government to an appeal to “blind instinct.”  Adherence to the status quo may indeed at times be “blind,” as Dr. Rothbard suggests, but, at other times, it may stem from the rational decision that in the light of certain ideational values the maintenance of existing institutions is the most desirable of the feasible social alternatives, and consequently, that conservatism is the most rational ideology to espouse.  His argument that conser-vatism is necessarily irrational because it stresses the irrationality in man equates a theory of irrationalism with irrational theory.

He implies that a conservative who defends one set of existing institutions must defend all existing institutions: one who conserves American institutions must also conserve those in “Soviet Russia, South Africa, and Yemen.”  But this ignores the basic thesis of the article that conservatism is situational: it is the product of a specific pattern of social forces in a given situation.  Though conservatism as a theory is the theoretical rationale of all existing institutions, a conservative as an individual only wishes to defend a specific set of institutions. He only espouses conservatism temporarily, in that situation, until the challenge to the institutions is victorious or dissipated.  Nor is it a reflection on conservatism that it cannot be used to defend fascism.  Fascism, as it existed in Germany and, to a lesser extent, in Italy, was a permanent attack upon stable institutions—radicalism of the most destructive and nihilistic sort.

Finally, Dr. Rothbard argues that liberalism is doomed if liberals today abandon their liberal ideology and espouse conservatism.  I have touched above on the weaknesses in the historical analogy by which he attempts to support this conclusion, but another fallacy also exists in this argument.  The problem of the United States today in relation to the rest of the world is that we are so absorbed in our own ideals that we find it impossible to believe that other nations cannot be absorbed in them also. However, the noncommitted portion of the world seems to be about as afraid of a crusading American liberalism as of a crusading Russian communism.  The way to develop support among the neutrals then is to prove to them that unlike the Soviet Union we have no desire to make them over in our own image.  Our problem, as Hartz says, is to transcend our own experience.  It is to recognize that the liberal institutions which are appropriate for us have little relevance in Asia, the Mideast, the satellite countries, or even, in many respects, in western Europe; and that our proper aim, as liberals, is to insure that they are maintained here.  As Dr. Rothbard recognizes and deplores, American liberals are tending toward conservatism.  Such a develop-ment, however, is not a sign of doom but of maturity. John Dewey and Henry Wallace were appropriate for the 1930s; Reinhold Niebuhr and George Kennan are required in the 1950s.

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