The Middling MindReviewed by Stephen Tonsor
Middlingness, the juste milieu, the center, the middle of the road, the third way: half way between revolution and conservatism in Anglo‑American politics has been perennially regarded as the most favorable and intelligent political position. Even in religion, much of the appeal of Anglicanism lies in the belief that its position lies half way between Protestantism and Popery. John Henry Newman invented for himself and his fellow Tractarians a via media which, to his horror, he later discovered was a halfway house between belief and atheism. Newman’s discovery is the often‑repeated discovery of those who pursue the middle course. No driver can occupy for long the center of a crowded road. Why this position should be, in the long run, so unsatisfactory is theoretically puzzling.
These theoretical problems are accentuated at the present time when so many societies and polities are attempting to move away from Marxist totalitarianism to a system based on liberty, personal freedom, and a market economy. The belief among many is that there is a middle way, a third way which avoids the supposed excesses of individualism and capitalism even while it escapes the trammels of totalitarianism.
We need not be reminded by Goethe to realize that all theory is gray and that only the tree of life is green. It is for this reason that history, when it has freed itself from ideological presuppositions, is the only safe guide in politics. In the age of ideology through which the world has been passing, however, men have taken their history from ideological theory rather than their politics from history.
Vincent Starzinger’s The Politics of the Center is a brilliant effort to study the history of two major and related centrist political movements; to explore their theory, the cast of mind which invented and instantiated these positions, their relationship to social and political realities, their attempt at justification by an appeal to ideological history, and their political deficiencies and ultimate failure. In a work of remarkable concision and argumentative vigor, Starzinger moves from past political reality and theory to enduring concerns and contemporary debate. The thirty years of French and English history he traces were dominated by a quest for a middle way. Its theorists sought a political theory for a post‑revolutionary age. They believed that they could halt the drift to revolution, that the rise and victory of the middle class would produce political and social stasis. English Whigs and French Doctrinaires believed that they occupied parallel positions and supported equivalent political theories. Starzinger, while admitting a general equivalence, makes clear the vast social, political, and ideological differences which existed between France and England in the first half of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, both Whigs and Doctrinaires believed the Whig and Orleanist revolutions were class victories when, in fact, class interest ill defined the intellectual elite which brought these revolutions into existence. Their misperception was not unlike the Marxist misrepresentation of the “revolution” as the victory of the proletariat.
It is this misperception of the reality and its theoretical misconstruction that lead to the failure of both the Whig and the Doctrinaire positions. The “middling mind,” Starzinger asserts, fundamentally misunderstood change. The misunderstanding is nowhere more evident than in the historical works of Guizot and Macaulay. Starzinger not only uses the historiographical evidence to great effect, but at a time when Trollope’s novels had not yet been popularized by TV he employs the evidence of French and English novels impressively and to great historical purpose.
Does it follow, however, that because Whigs and Doctrinaires misunderstood change, the conservative position, as such, was somehow superior as Starzinger asserts? To be sure the conservative position is superior in its realization of the power of change and its critique of the dangers inherent in that change. It is important, however, to realize that the conservative position in itself contains no talisman which will ward off the drift into radical democracy and the centralization and growth of bureaucratic power. Alexis de Tocqueville appears all too infrequently in Starzinger’s exposition. Tocqueville understood better than any of his contemporaries the nature of change and the drift to radical democracy. His is a conservative theory of the social and institutional‑constitutional means to check that drift, a method to defend democracy: federalism, a mixed and balanced constitution, and a social structure which mitigates the effects of bureaucracy and centralization.
The Greek doctrine of the cycle of the constitutions and the inevitable development of tyranny seems a doctrine which escaped the awareness of Whig and Doctrinaire. For Polybius as for Tocqueville this drift had the inevitability of a fated or providentially determined event. Conservatism is valuable not only as a critique of implications of this shift to radical democracy. Conservatism knows that inevitably the battle will be lost. Still it is aware that these developments can be, by constitutional and social means, held in abeyance. The solution is not a permanent one, is one not dependent on class or ideological history, and is indifferent to the theorizing of the “middling mind.” The inevitability of change cannot be annulled. It can only be retarded.
Stephen J. Tonsor (1924–2014) was professor of history at the University of Michigan.
Posted: November 24, 2014 in Best of the Bookman.