Peter Viereck’s Unadjusted Conservatism: One of the most insightful figures in postwar conservatism has been forgotten in our age of political chaos. (John D. Wilsey, 5/02/24, Law & Liberty)

His study of, and tragic experience with fascism moved Viereck to Burkean conservatism. He defined conservatism like this:

The conservative principles par excellence are proportion and measure; self-expression through self-restraint; preservation through reform; humanism and classical balance; a fruitful nostalgia for the permanent beneath the flux; and a fruitful obsession for unbroken historical continuity. These principles together create freedom, a freedom built not on the quicksand of adolescent defiance but on the bedrock of ethics and law.

Viereck’s is a beautiful articulation of the conservative disposition.

Viereck identified specific features of measured and extreme conservatism. He classified measured conservatism as evolutionary Burkean and extreme conservatism as reactionary Ottantottist. What did he mean?

Viereck argued that Burke’s Reflections birthed modern conservatism in a similar way that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels birthed international Marxism through their Communist Manifesto. For Viereck, what stood out most clearly from Burke’s conservatism was an orientation around tradition, especially the tradition of ordered liberty. Viereck also saw that the Burkean tradition was evolutionary, contrasted with the ossified, counter-revolutionary rightism expressed through French thinker Joseph de Maistre (1753–1821). For Viereck, both the Burkean and the Maistrian strands of conservatism hold up tradition in the face of revolutionary change, but Burkeans stand for traditional liberties whereas Maistrians champion traditional authority. Viereck called the Maistrian tradition “ottantott,” from the Italian word, ottantotto, meaning “eighty-eight.” Viereck wrote, “A reactionary king of Piedmont-Sardinia became almost a figure of fun by wandering about mumbling pathetically the word ‘ottantott.’ … Thereby he meant to say: all problems would vanish if only the world turned its clock back to 1788, the year before the Revolution.”

Burkeans and ottantotts differ in the way they understand the nature of change and how to respond to it. Burkeans see change as natural and inevitable, thus it must be managed by honest deliberation based on constitutional procedure, tradition, and prudence. Ottantotts are resistant to change, deploying nostalgia not for imaginative purposes, but as a test for truth. Ottantotts, since they are counter-revolutionary, seek disruption no less than leftist revolutionaries. They are utopian in a similar way to leftist revolutionaries: their political vision is predicated on obscurantist nostalgia, which is just as abstract as the leftist revolutionaries’ dreams of a perfected society. Both leftist revolutionaries and ottantott counter-revolutionaries seek to build temples in the sky, and have no use for the concrete experience of the past. Viereck saw the Burkean tradition as the predominant conservative tradition in American history. He thought the ottantottist tradition, emerging from the thought of Maistre, as the predominant conservative tradition on the continent of Europe. Considering the development of American conservatism since 1990, there seems to be a clear turn toward ottantottism, especially in its rising populist appeal due to the frustration among many Americans for Republican aimlessness in the opening decades of the twenty-first century.