Notes on the Gauchiste Right


July 25, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue II: Populism

Roger Scruton invoked the word “gauchiste” (translated from French as leftist) to refer to the intellectuals, who, in their artisan-styled college town cafes pontificate endlessly about the society that could be.

Inspired by the many manifestos that drive their wild designs, one of Scruton’s (and others’) core critiques of the leftist has always been that he is an intellectual. The word “intellectual” is often conflated with intellect, or intelligence, but this is not how Scruton used the word.

Jordan Peterson recently took to Twitter declaring that “There are no Great Socialist Intellectuals by definition.”

But if we apply Scruton’s criteria, it is very clear that many socialist thinkers were actually great intellectuals. The problem with Peterson’s argument—or perhaps with the many conservatives who continue to worship him as the archetypal “public intellectual”—is that all socialists tend to do is intellectualize everything, without much consideration for how their new society would work in praxis.

Edmund Smirk, a popular conservative pseudonymous Twitter account, first took note of this:

Karl Marx was a great intellectual, and those who attempted to establish the Earthly Paradise as laid out in the Communist Manifesto quickly subjected hundreds of millions of people to its real-world horrors. But these horrors, of course—which consumed much of the 20th century—were never really accounted for by Marx’s intellectualism.

But that intellectualism persists nevertheless, if not in the cafe then more prominently in the Ivory Tower. And to make matters worse, it is far more insulated and hegemonic nowadays, using the enduring prestige of longstanding institutions of higher learning to further legitimize their insufferable revolutionary rectitude. Dutschke would be proud. 

While it is easy for conservatives to dismiss leftists as midwitted (and we very well may be wholly justified to do so), that does not necessarily make them any less intellectual. The conservative understanding of the intellectual, as presented by Scruton, as well as other American thinkers like Russell Kirk, correctly identified the leftist as someone strictly in the business of pontification, without much consideration for how it all would work in the real world.

Thinkers like Scruton and Kirk are largely regarded for developing a body of work that successfully traced modern conservatism’s intellectual bloodline back to the writing of Burke. While a return to a more Burkean outlook has been hailed by “New Right” conservatives on Twitter and elsewhere, there are unfortunately many who either misunderstand him or deliberately mischaracterize his work. 

A persisting problem on the right is the many mini-movements that conflate a genuine effort to stalwartly guard tradition with a shallow bohemian aestheticism that romanticizes aspects of long-gone eras never to be recovered. But Burke knew better. When he invoked the ancient virtue of prudence, he meant that if there is to be change, it ought to be out of a “moral rather than complexional timidity”; or, in other words, to approach all change with a bit of humility and reverence for what is already built. Change ought not to come from fickleness or cowardice. 

The right today is filled with those who prefer to occupy those same cafes, writing overly long screeds about the impending post-liberal regime change, or about how the anti-liberal left and right can now suddenly converge to overthrow the liberal order. There is also a sort of sadness to be felt as we watch these right-wing hipsters become heavily invested in the pseudo-art of pontification.

Scruton observed that when the leftist intellectual occupied the cafe, he merely sat and watched the “passing show”; that is to mean, despite enticing the impressionable young college freshman to “come over to his position,” the cafe itself was not a legitimate expression of political power. The leftist was instead merely operating adjacent to the real centers of power. But things have changed since Scruton wrote those words, and we have seen increasingly that the leftists have gradually moved from the cafe to the Ivory Tower itself. The gauchiste right has yet to do so, and as of now, it would appear to lack the necessary political machinery to make the leap.

Many conservatives have harped about Burke’s insistence on prudence being chief among virtues in the statesman, but seemingly only in the face of “light or transient causes.” In other words, prudence is only emphasized when radicals appear. While this is what conservatives ought to do, it is only half the battle. Far less acknowledged is the necessity of prudence when the conservative performs his chief political function: the conservation of tradition. 

To be prudent is to be pragmatic. Mindlessly posting cherry-picked quotes from ancient Greek or Roman thinkers on social media, coupled with a picture of their corresponding stone statue, does nothing for the organic preservation of tradition. This is not to say that social media cannot play a role in preserving tradition. After all, as one of our main forms of communication, political messaging can be spread faster than ever, and this has been used by both those on the left and right to get the point across. But while social media platforms have been shown to help promulgate all sorts of reactionary politics, it is nevertheless incapable of preserving culture organically. 

There is a reason why the “Reject modernity, embrace tradition” slogan has become a popular internet meme—the onlineness of it all ironically undermines the point. Our hyper-digitized age has created a disconnect, and conservatives parroting the tired platitudes of “rejecting modernity” ought to make the effort to find out what that really means, especially as they, too, regularly take advantage of this so-called culturally degenerate modernity.

None of this is to say that conservatives shouldn’t be trying to change the culture, but such efforts should be made pragmatically, based on what can reasonably be recovered, so as to avoid the trap of seeking to recover a lost age based on heavily romanticized depictions of what that looked like.

For as much as Burke advocated for the preservation of the bonds between people handed to them by an oldfangled social order, his advocacy for clear minded, pragmatic rulers also suggests that he realized that some things really are lost to the sands of time. 

Of course, this is not to say that conservatives should lose their reverence for oldfangled social orders that no longer exist. But the point of conservatism shouldn’t be to return to something that is already lost, but to recover the philosophical framework that guided their approaches to statecraft so that we may apply them to our lives as best we can.


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