What was the Counter-Enlightenment?

The Counter-Enlightenment was a conservative movement which existed between the 18th and 20th centuries.  It sought to reverse the political, social, religious and philosophical changes associated with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

It is sometimes known as "throne and altar conservatism" or "Latin conservatism", and the terms "counterrevolutionary" and "reactionary" also have a similar meaning.  It has strong affinities to the French ideology of Maurrassisme and General Franco's "national Catholicism".  Its origins can be traced back, at least in part, to mediaeval European culture and the idea of Christendom.

Prominent Counter-Enlightenment intellectuals included Joseph de Maistre, Louis de Bonald, François-René de Chateaubriand and Augustin Barruel.

The term "Counter-Enlightenment" was popularised by the philosopher Sir Isaiah Berlin.  It can also be used for other political and cultural movements that were opposed to the Enlightenment, such as Rousseau's political theories and the Romantic movement in the arts.


What do Counter-Enlightenment conservatives believe?

The twin pillars of Counter-Enlightenment ideology are the Throne and the Altar.

The Throne represents the authoritarian rule of a hereditary monarch over a hierarchically structured society.  This form of government is incompatible with liberal democracy, though the king might rule in conjunction with some kind of elected or appointed legislative assembly.  Subjects would not enjoy the civil rights associated with the Enlightenment, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press.

The Altar represents the church (usually the Catholic Church) as a political and social institution, enjoying the support and endorsement of the state.  The king would be both a defender of the church and a sacred person in himself.  Religious doctrine would form the basis of state policy in areas such as the family and public education.  The preaching and practice of heretical forms of religion would be restricted or forbidden.

The Counter-Enlightenment was initially opposed to nationalism, which was originally a liberal and progressive movement.  By the end of the nineteenth century, however, nationalist ideas had taken root on the extreme right wing. They loomed large in the thought of the influential French Counter-Enlightenment writer Charles Maurras and became the ideological bedrock of fascism.

The Counter-Enlightenment critique of liberalism was based partly on politics and partly on religion.  With regard to politics, Counter-Enlightenment thinkers denied that it was possible to run a stable and tranquil society on the basis of liberal ideas.  If people started electing their leaders and thinking for themselves, the result would be not freedom but chaos, bloodshed and tyranny.  With regard to religion, they viewed the French Revolution and what followed it as inspired by Satan: an attempt by man to rebel against the authority of God and his Church.

Counter-Enlightenment writers often attributed the advent of modern liberal civilisation not to long-term socio-economic changes but to a conspiracy.  The theory of a Freemasonic conspiracy first gained currency following the French Revolution of 1789, and by the end of the nineteenth century it had been joined by the myth of a Jewish world-conspiracy.  These ideas later became linked with the rise of Communism. 


What became of the Counter-Enlightenment?

The Counter-Enlightenment originated in the latter part of the 18th century, and it was in decline from around the 1870s onwards.  In that decade, royalists failed in their final attempt to restore the French monarchy, the Catholic Church lost the last of the Papal States to the constitutional Kingdom of Italy, and in Spain political strife produced the first Spanish Republic, followed quickly by a restored constitutional monarchy.  In Russia, the reforming Tsar Alexander II was on the throne, while in newly secularised Rome the conservative Pope Pius IX died and was succeeded by the more moderate Leo XIII.  However, Counter-Enlightenment ideas took a long time to die out.  The last European Counter-Enlightenment regime, that of General Franco in Spain, remained in existence until 1975.

At the present day, the Counter-Enlightenment has effectively ceased to exist as a living political force, though it is kept alive to a limited extent by far-right political movements like the French Front National and by ultra-traditionalist Catholics. Some bloggers also seem to be sympathetic to reactionary ideas.


Is the Counter-Enlightenment part of the conservative movement?

Yes, but only in a broad sense.  Reactionary conservatism is quite different from the conservative traditions of Britain, America and the rest of the English-speaking world.

Modern conservatism generally means one of two things: Burkean conservatism or classical liberalism (or neoliberalism).  Burkean conservatism is essentially a kind of down-to-earth traditionalism which values order, stability and precedent, and is suspicious of utopian grand designs, whether they are put forward by liberals or socialists.  Classical liberalism (or neoliberalism) is defined these days mainly by its support for freemarket capitalism, which may be coupled with a liberal stance on issues such as gay rights, women's rights and civil liberties.

Reactionary conservatism has some degree of similarity with these movements, but it also exhibits major differences.  Unlike Burkean conservatism, it is strongly ideological - idealistic, even.  Unlike neoliberalism, it frequently shows a suspicion (or even a hatred) of capitalism.  In terms of the conventional political spectrum, it belongs on the far right. 


Does that mean that it is akin to fascism or Nazism?

It is distinct from fascism and Nazism, mostly because those movements were self-consciously modernistic and had little time for old-style kings and churches.  There is, however, a significant degree of overlap between the two brands of extreme-right politics.  Both were violently opposed to liberalism and socialism, and both stood for militarism, the authority of the state and prescriptive social roles.  Some regimes have mixed elements of fascism and reactionary conservatism (e.g. Franco's Spain), while others have gravitated more towards orthodox reactionary conservatism (e.g. Salazar's Portugal) or towards pure fascism (e.g. Mussolini's Italy). 


What do you think of the Counter-Enlightenment?

I am implacably opposed to it, for three reasons:

1.  It is on the wrong side of history.  As Mussolini observed, history does not travel backwards.  While I have an academic interest in Counter-Enlightenment thought, I would rather give my support and energy to a creed that has something to offer the present and the future.  It is safe to say that no major western country will ever again by ruled over by a sacred king and a feudal aristocracy in union with the Christian church.

2. It doesn't work.  The most successful, stable, prosperous and responsibly governed societies on earth are liberal democracies.  Their only serious rival is the odd mixture of communism, capitalism and Confucianism that is China.  The world's remaining patriarchal theocratic monarchies are looking to us for their lead, rather than vice versa.  For what it's worth, political freedom also seems to correlate with personal happiness.

3.  It is theoretically bankrupt.  Counter-Enlightenment ideology developed out of the mediaeval ideal of Christendom, and depended for its legitimacy on a particular interpretation of the Christian faith (usually in its Catholic or Orthodox forms).  It's become quite a bit harder to believe in God since 1789 (though I for one still do so), and religious people, who sharply disagree on most political issues anyway, rarely claim these days that he desires or lends his legitimacy to the kind of society that reactionaries wanted to preserve.  By contrast, as noted above, liberalism has been validated by experience, and it makes space for the full range and variety of human life and behaviour.  Reactionary conservatism is cruelly Procrustean by comparison.