The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 09, 2005

Maurice Cowling and Impossibilist Conservatism

Posted by Stephen Davies

Both Prof. Jeremy Black - Jeremy Black on Maurice Cowling - and Prof. Michael Bentley - Michael Bentley on Maurice Cowling (1926-2005) - have written for the Social Affairs Unit about Maurice Cowling's influence and impact. Here Dr Stephen Davies - Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-editor of A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought - takes a much more critical view of Cowling's impact. Dr Davies argues that: "Maurice Cowling's intellectual legacy is considerable but he did much to create a kind of impossibilist conservatism that has done as much harm to the effectiveness of actual conservative politics and argument (in his terms) as the better known leftist impossibilist thinking has done to the politics of the left."

Maurice Cowling, who died on 24th August 2005, has attracted even more attention from the obituarists than might be expected for a distinguished historian. This is because he was clearly an important figure in the intellectual and even political history of contemporary Britain. Unusually for an academic he was influential both in his professional discipline, that of political and intellectual history, and in the world of political thought, activism and journalism. What united both of these was a distinctive and coherent conservatism which he articulated, and applied to many topics and individuals throughout his life. He was therefore an important figure in the history of British conservatism, in thought, expression and practice. His influence, freely acknowledged by many, came not only from his academic works and reviews, but even more from his inspiring qualities as a teacher, particularly during his time at Peterhouse. This meant that he was a seminal influence on many students and colleagues who went on to become important players in the realms of academia, journalism and politics. This point has been made in most of the obituary and comment published since his death.

However, his considerable influence has been ultimately negative rather than constructive and in the world of political argument in particular has been harmful and destructive. What he brought in insight and combativeness is more than counterbalanced by the harm done to effectiveness and persuasive capacity. Cowling's views and approach to politics, in the context of late twentieth century Britain, produced a kind of impossibilist conservatism, marked by a combination of cynicism and negative but extravagant argument. While effective in some ways, and corrosive of conventional piety (very much what he wanted), Cowling's conservatism, because of its style and lack of purchase upon the realities of contemporary Britain, amounted in practice to a striking of poses or attitudes rather than serious engagement with contemporary British politics and society. Because of his influence upon so many scholars and writers, this had a corrosive effect upon much conservative argument and analysis, giving it a quality that was mannered and dramatic yet ineffectual. Essentially he articulated a conservative ideology that became influential on the right yet undermined any purchase conservative arguments might have had on many issues. In some ways this is not surprising, and would not have surprised him, given his beliefs, but it is also paradoxical, given that one of his central qualities was a ruthless scouting of the claims of ideologies and theories. This derives however from one of the main difficulties or problems with his thinking both historical and political.

Cowling's ideas and views are in some ways easy to uncover, unusually so for a historian. Historians tend to give most respect to his trio of works on the subject of "high politics" - a topic which he made his own in many ways - covering the politics of 1867, the rise of the Labour Party, and the response of the British elite to the challenge of Hitler's Germany. Showing a remarkable grasp of the sources and a striking capacity for detailed analysis, they also both spell out and embody a set of clear ideas about the nature of both politics and the enterprise of the study of history.

His magnum opus, the three volume Religion and Public Doctrine, while much less highly regarded by his academic colleagues, gives a clear insight into some his other central notions and in particular into the view he took of the dominant trend in ideas and beliefs in the last hundred and fifty years of British history. Its format, a series of short to medium length essays or vignettes on a whole series of intellectuals both famous and obscure, provides an insight into his often scathing take on what he regarded as the secular religion of the contemporary elite and its pieties, doctrines and secular saints (such as his own bete noire J. S. Mill). Perhaps the most acute insight into both his character and beliefs can be got from reading his journalism and reviews, particularly the highly critical ones, which reveal to the fullest a quality of acute analysis combined with feline malice and disdain. The semi-autobiographical first volume in particular of Religion and Public Doctrine lays bare the intellectual influences that shaped his ideas and attitudes during his time as a young man at Cambridge, many of them conservative dons such as Edward Welbourne and Charles Smyth who are forgotten by most today. The most considerable influence intellectually however was Oakeshott.

One clear example of Oakeshott's impact is Cowling's view of the nature and purpose of the study of the past. History for him was that activity itself, rather than the actual past or its remains. He rejected the idea of an empirically based search for truth, however approximate, but was also opposed to the idea of an idealist approach that sought to uncover an underlying spirit or structure in history. For him historians were as much advocates as analysts, engaged in an enterprise to construct a narrative that was persuasive or useful. The notion of a pursuit of truth defined as an objective reality independent of the position, desires and opinions of the historian was something he rejected as yet another sentimental piety. The view of history that he most disliked was the optimistic "Whig" one, of the past (of Britain in particular) as a story of increasing enlightenment and civilisation - of progress in fact. This was significant since he identified this way of thinking as a central element in the dominant world that he intensely despised.

The central aspect of Cowling's thought was his rejection of what he saw as the predominant mode of thought and belief of his time. Consequently he seems to have cast himself as an outsider or critic, a speaker of uncomfortable truths and demolisher of complacent assumptions among the dominant intellectual and political milieu. He also saw himself as a tough minded realist confronted by a wilful sentimentalism. The views he rejected can be seen as simply an all embracing liberalism, including both the classical and revisionist variants.

He himself however saw political doctrines such as the varieties of liberalism as applications of a wider set of beliefs, as much inarticulate attitude as worked out ideas, which he termed "moral earnestness". He argued that this had come into existence during the central decades of the nineteenth century and had been dominant in public and intellectual life since the nineteen twenties. He opposed to this a robust and combative conservatism, which had a distinctly Machiavellian quality but was also based upon a view of the human condition as ultimately tragic and constrained, although also simultaneously deeply amusing and entertaining in a rather grim fashion. This meant that sentimentality and generalised benevolence were something to avoid at almost any cost. (One consequence of this was that some kinds of socialism, notably Marxism, got off relatively lightly, with the real ire reserved for doctrines such as ethical socialism). However because of the (generally accurate) perception that political and intellectual life was dominated by a set of profoundly antithetical ideas, this was a conservatism marked by sentiments of regret and a feeling of defeat, at once both resentful and elegiac, despite the eschewing of overt sentiment.

Associated with this were a set of clear ideas about the nature and function of politics as an activity, which find clear expression in the "high politics" trilogy. The main one is a "realist" view of politics, which is seen as being about power and the ways it is obtained, retained or lost and used. Ideologies and articulated political ideas and principles are seen in purely instrumental terms, as one of the weapons of political struggle and manoeuvre, and as rationalisations of or justifications for concrete interests and concerns (the influence of Oakeshott is again apparent). If the goal of politics is power then its aim should be the sustaining of a political and social order in an unstable and often dangerous world. Politics is seen in Machiavellian terms as an end in itself and not something that can be properly subordinated to a moral purpose of some kind.

This implies a pragmatic view of policy and a radical discounting of principle as a basis for action. In concrete terms, politics is essentially about the personal relations and struggles for advantage among a very small group of people who have power and are generally autonomous, that is the role of popular pressure or mass movements is generally trivial and as best supportive and secondary. The role of religion and religious belief however is primary because of its central role in the definition of "public doctrine" by which Cowling meant the set of ideas shared by the elite (and by extension much of the wider society) about the nature and purpose of the public sphere and of the collective social relations of human beings in a particular historic political and social order. Hence for Cowling changes in the content and form of politics were a kind of epiphenomenon to changes in religious thought and understanding.

This may sound rather abstract, but as his published writings reveal, for Cowling this was instantiated in a distinctive view of modern British politics and society and the course of British intellectual and political history since at least the early nineteenth century. This had the following elements, which recur in his work. The first, as mentioned, is a deep hostility to the dominant trend of thought and policy in twentieth century Britain. This is seen as a body of ideas that begin as a critique of traditional orthodox Christianity, particularly Anglicanism, and develops into a rival secular religion (in the sense of being a comprehensive set of ideas about the nature and purpose of human life). The adherents of this set of beliefs see themselves as not having any dogmas or doctrine, but rather as dispassionate experts, guided by scientific investigation and universal and self-evident moral principles. In fact, Cowling argues, they are as dogmatic as any divine with their doctrine all the more powerful for its being thought of as something neutral and not requiring defence or examination.

A central doctrine which has for Cowling had a disastrous impact, is a meliorist view of life and politics which ignores uncomfortable reality and leads to mistaken policy in both the domestic and foreign arenas. In this way of thinking the great foe of conservatism is not so much socialism as liberalism, which is seen as dominating argument in all of the major parties for much of the years after 1918 and certainly 1945. The central event in recent British history is the intellectual defeat of a distinctively Christian public doctrine and its replacement by that of "moral earnestness" - something Cowling said he became aware of at the time of Suez.

This is a powerful and systematic view of modern British politics and political history. Moreover, it has an iconoclastic quality that makes possible a radical questioning of arguments and policies that might otherwise escape examination. Why then should it be problematic, in terms of its influence upon a generation of conservative scholars, writers and politicians? Essentially there are two fundamental features that make it, however attractive, an intellectual blind alley for anyone who wishes to either mount an effective criticism of the received wisdom or to put forward a conservative view of recent history and the present that will have any kind of persuasive power or capacity to effect political action.

The first is that while Cowling presents his ideas as a kind of tough minded machiavellian realism that is opposed to systematic ideology they are in fact themselves deeply ideological. This is not apparent however at first sight because of the second feature of his thinking, its lack of a positive aspect or currently (rather than historically) existing object of attachment. The central element in Cowling's view of British history in recent times was the perception of an overwhelming victory for forces and beliefs that he despised. There is an attachment to a historic order and set of institutions that have however either vanished or been transformed beyond recognition. There is an element of the Maurassian idea of a pays real surviving and continuing in the shadow of the pays legal but in his own way of thinking this is of little import. Cowling was always interested and involved in actual Conservative politics, but the logic of his own analysis was that this could have little or no effect short of some kind of revolution. This is because the desired state of affairs is, by his own analysis, almost impossible to bring about given present circumstances. Moreover the rejection of political idealism as sentimentality leads to a view of public life that is self-defeating and also sits very uneasily with the undoubted moral outrage and ultimately ethical critique of much of the dominant beliefs and the political managerial class that holds them. The rejection of any significant role in political history for a wider public rules out a whole range of strategies and approaches as well as being factually questionable.

In fact Cowling's ideas lead to a particular kind of politics and view of contemporary Britain which we can clearly observe in many of those who came under his influence. There is a profound, often justified, hostility to many dominant ideas and received wisdom. However there is also a deep pessimism, a feeling that the essential battle is lost, and that the ideas, practices and institutions that are worth saving are either gone or damaged beyond repair. Moreover, in this way of thinking the very nature of politics and political action means that their capacity to achieve anything is now inherently limited. These two things together mean that while it is possible to mount an effective and penetrating negative critique of the dominant order it is not feasible to offer any realistic kind of alternative or at any rate one that could command any kind of widespread assent.

This leads to a political practice that is as much about style as substance, about attitude as power, and about striking poses or deliberately seeking to annoy and irritate as to actually have a definite impact on politics or society in general. In short, this is a way of viewing British society and politics today that leads to a rejection of the way things are while holding that the only alternative to be wished for is unachievable other than as a matter of personal lifestyle. In practice, particularly since the fall of Margaret Thatcher, this has produced a style that is simultaneously sour and negative yet elegiac and valedictory. To put it simply, this is not going to be effective in any way. Maurice Cowling's intellectual legacy is considerable but he did much to create a kind of impossibilist conservatism that has done as much harm to the effectiveness of actual conservative politics and argument (in his terms) as the better known leftist impossibilist thinking has done to the politics of the left.

Dr Stephen Davies is Senior Lecturer in History at Manchester Metropolitan University. He is the co-editor of A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought (Routledge, 1991) and author of Empiricism and History (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003). To read further reflections by Social Affairs Unit authors on Maurice Cowling and his influence, see Maurice Cowling (1926-2005).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.

I hoped that Dr Davies might have drawn a comparison between the British and U.S. experiences - on the face of it, Cowlingism is alive and well across the pond. Perhaps you would care to invite him to write again?

Posted by: Innocent Abroad at September 10, 2005 06:53 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement