Black Liberals

In black America, then, it is difficult to locate a fully developed, principled conservatism among major intellectual or political leaders. Rather, one finds stratagems of accomodationism, cowardice, and opportunism. This is not surprising since it would be difficult for thoughtful blacks to embrace completely conservatism — whether Lockean or Burkean — because they have seen little worth conserving in traditions and institutions organized and maintained on the basis of their denigration and subordination. Change — often radical change — has always been at the core of African American thought.


African Americans have been liberal, therefore, because the conditions of their existence have always cried out for a positive state, a positive national state that would first end slavery, then end segregation, and now bring about racial equality. Given these conditions opposition to liberalism becomes the same as racism. (72-73, 75)

Robert C. Smith | Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They Are the Same


Black Workers & Social Security

The Social Security Act created a two-tier welfare system. The first tier established a social insurance system for unemployed and retired workers. The second tier provided assistance to the blind, elderly, and children from single-parent families. The first system is viewed as an “insurance” program to which all eligible workers are entitled on the basis of their “contributions” (in the form of the Social Security tax). The second system is viewed as a “welfare” program for the poor because they do not make “contributions.” Although the African American leadership strongly supported the creation of the welfare state, it just as strongly opposed the creation of the two-tier system. Opposition to the two-tier system arose because the majority of blacks were excluded from the first tier. In order to get the support of members of Congress from the southern states, Roosevelt agreed to exclude the self-employed, domestic servants, clergymen, and nurses from the tier-one insurance program. By excluding these categories of workers, the system excluded 60 percent of all black workers and 80 percent of black women workers while covering 70 percent of whites. This is because in the 1930s black workers were mainly farm laborers or domestic servants. The leaders of both the NAACP and the Urban League engaged in a concerted lobbying campaign, but Roosevelt would not alter the coverage because he feared the exclusion of those workers was the only way he could get a bill through a Congress dominated by the Conservative Coalition. The NAACP and the Urban League also opposed funding the Social Security system on the basis of worker contribution (Actually a flat tax on the covered workers and their employers. It is also the only tax the rich do not pay since the income taxed is capped at upper-middle-class income; today a little more than $100,000), preferring instead financing on the basis of general tax income. Roosevelt opposed using general tax revenue because he said it would cost too much and would turn the system into “welfare” or the “dole.” However, the income of many covered black workers was at that time too low to pay the Social Security tax. Thus, they too were in effect excluded. The second component of the New Deal welfare state — the National Labor Relations Act — also disadvantaged black workers because it permitted unions to operate “closed shops,” which limited employment to members of the union. Black leaders opposed this provision because of concerns that many unions would exclude blacks. The NAACP proposed an amendment to the act that would have permitted closed shops only when a union did not restrict membership on the basis of race. But this amendment was opposed by the major unions; Roosevelt declined to support it, and it was not adopted. The final component of the welfare state — the Fair Labor Standards Act — established minimum wage and working hours and provided compensation to the unemployed, but this also disadvantaged black workers. First, like the Social Security Act, it excluded domestic and farm labor and was financed on the basis of worker “contributions.” Again, black leaders opposed this system, favoring instead a system that covered all workers and was financed on the basis of income and inheritance taxes. Again, Roosevelt opposed this initiative, and it was defeated. The result was the exclusion of the vast majority of black workers from wage and hour protection and unemployment compensation when they lost their jobs. Thus, each of the three components of the early welfare state was based on institutional racism, disadvantaging black workers in general and black female workers in particular. (The provisions excluding domestic and farm labor were not repealed until 1952). (55-56)

Robert C. Smith | Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They Are the Same

Not Feudalism

Slavery was not feudalism and the owners of the large plantations were not an aristocracy and there was little basis for an organic society of harmony in the South that would sustain the European style conservatism validated by Burke. Instead, as Barrington Moore Jr. shows, rather than feudalism the southern plantation economy was a bastardized form of capitalism that generated an ideology of aristocratic pretensions based on an organic solidarity of whites in defense of racism. Therefore, the non-Lockean ideas expressed by southern writers such as Fitzhugh and Calhoun were largely rationalizations for keeping the philosophy of Locke for whites while denying it to blacks. (34-35)

Robert C. Smith | Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They Are the Same

Locke, War, & Slavery

Thus the only Lockean basis for slavery is when aggressors in an unjust war against “innocents” are conquered. Such aggressors, Locke contends, deserve death, but the victor “may (when he has him in his power) delay to take it, and make use of him to his own service and he does him no injury.” Slavery is justified in this instance because the enslaved persons themselves have violated the natural rights of other persons. This so-called just-war theory was obviously irrelevant to the enslavement of Africans in the Americas, since if anything they were the innocents, and if they had it within their power they could have justly enslaved Locke and all the others who engaged in the wars of aggression that resulted in the capture and enslavement of innocent African men, women, and children.

But even if this was not the case — that is, if some African men had been enslaved as a result of unjust wars — this still would not have provided a Lockean basis for the peculiar institution in the United States. This is because only those who actually engaged in the war may justly be enslaved, excluding noncombatants, women, and children. And certainly the children of the justly enslaved could not be held in bondage since they are the truly innocent. As Farr concludes, “whatever else might be said of Locke’s just-war theory of slavery this much is clear: It neither explains nor justifies the practice of seventeenth century slavery. The African slave trade and the institution of chattel slavery in the Americas flagrantly violated the theoretical constraints he so painstakingly set.”

In other words, while the founders of America were chaste Lockeans in giving birth to laissez-faire capitalism and limited government, they were bastards when it came to his ideas about the natural rights of all men to liberty. And they (and Locke) knew it, because during the colonial era popular pamphleteers frequently used the word slavery to refer to their situation under British rule. But as one wrote, the slavery we complain of “is lighter than a feather compared to their [African] heavy doom, and may be called liberty and happiness when contrasted with the most object slavery and intolerable wretchedness to which they are subjected.”

The bastardization of Locke nevertheless became an integral component of what was to be conserved in America, and to challenge it was as radical, as un-American, and as unconstitutional as challenging the prohibition on taking of private property without just compensation or the liberty of capital to employ labor on its own terms. Locke’s investments in and support of African slavery and the silence in his writings on the hypocrisy of it all makes him complicit in the bastardization of his own theory of the liberty of the individual. In the context of the times Locke’s just-war theory of slavery is morally bankrupt. (26-27)

Robert C. Smith | Conservatism and Racism, and Why in America They Are the Same

The Helmsman

Weil’s philosophy of work is Stoic in the sense that the revolt against necessity is made to appear foolish rather than heroic. Work is not a mode of Promethean rebellion. The free man determines his own fate, not unlike the helmsman of a small boat who keeps to his course through clever and discerning movements of the rudder and the sail, precisely by taking the waves and winds into consideration, and not because he subdues them. The metaphor of the little boat combines in one graphic image the formalizing use of juxtaposition, a use that involves the art applied by directive reason, by man’s gouverne, here represented by a rudder, a gouvernail. This art is both physical and mental work — or, put differently, the model of work that does not alienate. The fisherman’s simple way of life and his love of the sea as the emblem of amor fati are further evocative associations. The work of the boatman is very much like that of a free man. The similarity ends at the fact that for any boatman routine and improvisation play an essential part. “[T]he only mode of production absolutely free would be that in which methodical thought was in operation throughout the course of the work.”

This unattainable extreme of human liberty requires that the work itself be methodical — that is, that the method exist in the worker’s mind and is not brought in from outside. In the scientifically managed factory, the work is organized along lines determined by a method, but it is not methodical work. Man’s highest intellectual virtue, attentiveness, is not stimulated; on the contrary, it withers. (96-97)

Athanasios Moulakis | Simone Weil and the Politics of Self-Denial

[The problem is that if “clear-sighted work…allows no routine, no habituation, nor any authority or compulsion,” the result is that learning itself becomes impossible.]

Scudder on Tolstoy

There was a relation in Tolstoy’s mind. His healthy existence in the quiet of the fields held the clue as he believed to the conquest of the tenement-house evils. Let all who prey upon the labor of others — the privileged, the leisure, the capital-owning classes — follow his example: purify their lives, refrain from luxury, and share in physical toil. Two results, he believed, would follow. First, the crushing labor involved in the production of luxuries would be eliminated and a large amount of other labor would be lifted from the shoulders of the poor; next, and perhaps even more important, among those self-subjected to this Spartan discipline, would be born and developed by degrees a deep, ingrained distaste for the possession of any property at all. A free communism, voluntary, Christian, gentle, to be reached through no organized movement for social reconstruction, but as an ultimate result form the moralizing of individual conduct, will spread among all right-minded people; by holy contagion, men will become more and more right-minded; and the end, of which the old prophet never despaired, will be a world released and redeemed.

No thinking person, if religiously disposed, can dismiss this conception lightly. It will remain to the end operative in the inmost fibres of his social being. Again and again we shall have to recur to it: for there is some reason to suspect in it if not the logical culmination of the social seeking of the century, at least the most complete personal answer to the trouble of the social conscience. Yet the deep sadness that invaded us as we brooded over it was not wholly due to personal recoil from a call that we had not the courage to follow. It sprang rather from our thought of ultimate reactions, and the wider our outlook the keener it grew. Tolstoy does not shrink from the repudiation of art and science: he treats modern ideas of progress with scorn: the life of the peasant is to him the model of excellence, and his honor for poverty has in mind not the factory-worker, but the agricultural laborer alone. But over the suicide of civilization most of us pause hesitant. The Gospels themselves seem to us richer, wider, than in the Tolstoyan version. Despite our dissatisfactions and our revulsions, some reverence for the world as it is, and as it is becoming, is ingrained within us. We cannot believe that to abandon life will ever avail either to moralize or to save it. (46-47)

Vida Dutton Scudder | Socialism and Character

That Faint Strange Hope

The Voice of the Church murmured in suave consoling accents that the poor we have always with us, while the Voice of Respectable Society added in light crescendo the reassuring assertion that human nature would never be changed, and that men would always require the fear of starvation for an incentive. Refuted by that faint strange hope that would not down, abhorred in the depths of our being, yet echoed by our dreary fears, the cold voices numbed our endeavors. The dark modern spectacle of poverty and waste rose before us unaltered in the main by all those compassionate activities which not only in our generation but throughout the Christian ages had shed upon it a faint phosphorescent shining. (20-21)

Vida Dutton Scudder | Socialism and Character

Peace on Earth

If personal peace were the end of conduct, our story might end here. But it is only begun. For such peace can satisfy no one born anew in the spirit of democracy. Only a fulfillment of the angelic prophecy, “Peace on Earth,” can meet our need.

Here we touch one of the widest differences separating the idealism of the modern western world from that of the Orient or of mediaeval Catholicism. The way of sacrifice has always been known to the initiate as the only way of life. But that sacrifice has been subtly interwoven with egotism, to be recognized no less in the Buddhist, winning by deeds of charity the “merit” to speed him on his journey to Nirvana, than in the Catholic ascetic, “earning Heaven,” though it were the pure heaven of union with his crucified Lord, through self-mortification and mercy. Who would deny that fine impulses of love and pity blended in both cases with the individualist motive of exalted self-realization? To console the afflicted, to rescue the perishing, to minister to the sick, has ever brought holy delight and satisfied deep needs of affection. Yet these tender ministries have been habitually exerted as ends in themselves, destined to find ultimate value less in the bodily good of him who received them than in the spiritual salvation of him who gave.

Certainly there were included in no larger scheme of general social rehabilitation. Nor could they be so; for a personal and self-centered point of view was imposed by the limitations of the contemporary outlook. The larger tides of human destiny formerly either ebbed and flowed unnoted, or were considered to be independent of human control. In such days, the anguished compassion which has always filled noble hearts at the spectacle of mortal misery could be assuaged only be devotion to the individual leper, the special case of need. That suffering as a whole was an evil to be attacked, that our aim should be less to serve than to abolish it, would have been an attitude inconceivable to the mediaeval mind.

Times have changed. A sense of power, troubling, imperious, has descended upon us. We do not yet know very well what to do with it, but we cannot escape it. Belief in the divine possibilities of men quickens our expectant wills. (13-14)

Vida Dutton Scudder | Socialism and Character