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Conservatism Is Morally Bankrupt

Conservatives claim to defend tradition. The truth is, they actually defend domination and illegitimate power over others.

(Elijah Nouvelage / AFP via Getty Images)

The political right often describes itself as the defender of tradition — of the norms, values, and rituals that we cherish, and the communities that sustain them. These two elements are, often correctly, taken as connected. Norms and values cannot be sustained unless they are rooted in stable communities of fellowship. And the community, for its part, is meaningful precisely because of the habits and rituals, the deep sense of mutuality and common values, that it provides its members.

The Right understands that for most people, these phenomena hold great value, and it assiduously presents itself as their proponent. Conversely, the Left is often presented as contemptuous of tradition. In its critique of the status quo, its association with the forces of change, and its defense of individual rights, the Left is taken to be overturning the very “way of life” in which people find meaning. Hence, while the Right is viewed as a defender of the community, the Left is presented as a promoter of an iconoclastic individualism.

There is certainly an element of truth to this description. The Right has indeed sought to uphold important elements of traditional culture; the Left, for its part, does seek to overturn many institutions inherited from the distant past. Socialist anthems often pick up this theme — “The Internationale” talks about remaking the world “from its foundations,” while “Solidarity Forever” gives us the line about making “a new world from the ashes of the old.” But while we can affirm the standard description at a certain level of generality, it probably distorts more than it reveals.

For starters, the Left has never had an absolute hostility to tradition and community. If it did, it would have almost immediately collapsed as a political force. Socialists and trade unionists have, in fact, worked hard to recover and strengthen practices of resistance in the regions where they organize. These vital practices are nothing other than a culture, a tradition, of struggle. In mining towns, the textile industry, steel mills, lumberyards, ports, and docks — in all these sites, when socialists have organized workers, they have relied upon already existing traditions of resistance and collective struggle.

Once again, we can see this illustrated in the music of the Left. The Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies, were among the most important labor movements in US history, and spearheaded much of the early twentieth century’s radical trade unionism. They utilized folk music to develop class consciousness and a sense of community on the picket line, producing figures such as Joe Hill, who would go on to influence future generations of leftist musicians like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

Much of their most popular material was developed in the Little Red Songbook — but the tunes weren’t new. In fact, they were almost all hymn tunes, drawing on biblical traditions. But this wasn’t simply an appropriation of religious music: hymn tunes had been part of previous eras of struggle, from abolition to the Civil War and even early labor movement circles. In some cases, the tunes weren’t even altered all that greatly. In the 1930s, when the labor movement organized black workers in the American South, they adopted “We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” with each rung on the ladder representing a new worker joining the cause.

The existing traditions of resistance and struggle which the Left draws upon have been built up over decades in order to sustain working-class families in hard times and in their campaigns against their employers. They are multidimensional; in some instances, informal networks that support families in times of dearth, local aid to tide over bouts of unemployment, religious, or cultural institutions that provide moral support; then there are the various literary and symbolic representations that encode the tradition of resistance, such as the kind we have discussed — songs, poems, and legends so commonly found in communities of laboring groups.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that all of this also translates into a defense of working-class community — in two distinct ways. The first is protective: socialists try to defend and strengthen the collective traditions and shared institutions that working people have created for themselves. They understand that when employers lay off thousands, depress wages, or decamp and take their capital to other regions, they are not just destroying jobs but destroying entire ways of being. They tear up communities, and labor struggle is nothing other than the defense of that community against capital. They embed themselves within that community, become part of it, and join in the fight to sustain it.

The other way in which they promote community is by building it anew, even where it didn’t exist. Socialists understand that the strongest, most destructive effect of capital is to fling people into the labor market, pitting them against one another. Because they are in a constant struggle for jobs and security, workers are forced to confront their peers as a competitive threat, as rivals in the scramble for securing a livelihood. If class organizing is to succeed at all, the forces that pull workers apart have to be counteracted by the creation of organizations that bind them together — unions, neighborhood associations, political parties, working people’s clubs, and similar initiatives.

These organizations often build upon existing cultures of solidarity and struggle, as I have already suggested. In fact, one of the most striking examples of this is the League of the Just — a Christian organization which would eventually form the basis for Marx and Engels’s Communist League. But they also have to sometimes create the sense of mutuality where it didn’t exist previously. Unions and parties are critical in forging new political identities and, thereby, a new political community, without which political movements would simply collapse.

These are some of the important respects in which the Left has aligned with tradition, much against the accusation that they care only to upend it. What, then, differentiates their defense of it from the Right? The fact is that neither side adopts a blanket defense of tradition, nor a blanket condemnation. Each one selects elements of the culture that fit with its political goals, and is either indifferent or hostile to those which do not. Each side seeks to strengthen those parts of the culture that align with its goals while weakening those that clash with them. For the Left, this can mean seeking to uphold those traditions that strengthen labor’s hand against capital.

But underlying this is a deeper principle: the elements of the culture that should be preserved are those which undermine illegitimate power. The power of capital over workers is the most important contemporary instance of this. But the principle also encompasses other forms of domination — of gender, race, ethnicity, and nation. Thus, socialists have celebrated traditions of resistance in peasant communities against rural elites, of national struggles against imperial power, women in their demands for reproductive rights. They have even delved further back than this — after all, Rosa Luxemburg’s Spartacist League was named for a slave revolt against the Roman Empire which took place two thousand years earlier.

The Left recognizes that these traditions of resistance are to be found in every culture, in every part of the world. Whether in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, or the Americas, groups facing social domination have generated rich cultures of resistance, and this is why in every such region, the Left has been able to embed its basic principles into local practices and strengthen them. Every left thus becomes a local left, respectful of local traditions of struggle, but still part of a global movement, deploying a general principle against social domination. The general and the specific don’t clash, they sustain each other.

If we turn now to the Right, how does it fare with regard to tradition? There is no dispute that they present themselves as its defenders. But what aspects of it do they uphold? There was a time, in capitalism’s infancy, when conservatives could be identified as critics of the market’s brutal force, fighting to preserve principles of community and ancient ways against the incursion of market forces. Thus, Edmund Burke was genuinely appalled by capitalism’s narrow prioritization of profit above all else, and defended the old ways against its corrosive forces.

This was a conservatism still married to a feudal ethos. But by the middle of the twentieth century, the class alignment of conservatism had changed. By this time, the 1950s, conservatives and the Right no longer represented the fight of agrarian elites against an encroaching capitalist market. The order they were seeking to uphold was capitalism, and the class they served was the one of capital, in its fight against rising labor movements around the world. Far from seeking to preserve the ancient order, they now litigated for capitalism against demands for redistribution and socialism.

This realignment in the class basis of the Right makes its self-association with tradition a little awkward. As representatives of capital, it is hard to fathom how they can be viewed as defenders of community and its principles. As early conservatives were the first to point out, capitalism is driven to undermine community, and with it the most hallowed traditions. It is a system that prioritizes profit above all else, and in seeking the highest returns, investors don’t hesitate for a minute to overturn past practices, break up communities, rip asunder binding social ties, or hurl millions into the labor market.

In this, it is the Right that is contemptuous of the “old ways,” not the Left. But just as in the case of the Left, it is not that conservatives have a total disregard for inherited practices either. They too have a principle of selection, however inchoate it might be and however hard they work to obscure it. And it is simple: the traditions that they uphold are the ones that help sustain the sanctity of private property.

So aspects of culture that empower working people, the very ones that the Left works to support and strengthen, are the ones that the Right either ignores or actively undermines: the expectation, so common to feudal economies, that individuals had rights over common resources, the tradition of mutual support, the institutions of collective struggle — all of these aspects of tradition have been directly attacked by the contemporary right.

But even more pointedly, in its defense of property, the Right is the most committed proponent of individualism that the world has ever seen. For what is private property but the ultimate assertion of the individual over the community? Property rights endow the capitalist with a tremendous power over the rest of the population.

It is a power that determines who has a livelihood and who doesn’t; who has security and who doesn’t; what the standard of living will be for thousands, even millions; a power to dispose of their labor, and thereby their persons, for much of their waking time. And this power is sustained and defended against their collective demands for redress; it is a power of the individual against the community, asserted and upheld against that community. That very power is then deployed in a manner that tears apart their social fabric — with a cold, remorseless logic.

Socialists have been fierce critics of tradition, but not because they harbor wholesale antagonism to old ways; what they attacked were the components of the culture that sustained the social dominance of capital, that inhibited people’s drive for self-determination. They didn’t invent this principle, they simply articulated it. It was already present in the everyday struggle of working people to keep their heads above water in a ruthless market system.

These struggles were motivated by the very drive for autonomy and freedom from domination that the Left crafted into a theory and an ideology. And it will continue to motivate working people even if the Left disappears tomorrow. But this long history of critique, which the Left embraces, should not paint them as rootless cosmopolitans, as compulsive iconoclasts. That distinction belongs to the defenders of capital. As Tony Benn once wrote, “I’m a traditionalist. There are two sorts of tradition. There’s the tradition of obedience, deference, hierarchy and discipline; then there’s a different tradition which we celebrate: of independence, of human rights, of democracy, of internationalism.” While the current Left continues its revitalization, it will, just as every earlier generation did, embed itself in the everyday lives of working people. As it does, it too will excavate and strengthen traditions of struggle; it too will seek to defend the community against market forces, and build community where it has been torn apart. And it will advocate for the rejection of some traditions — those that stand in the way of people living secure, dignified lives.