“Towards the Restoration of the Western Tradition in Europe: possibilities and strategies.”
Report on a conference held at Vanenburg estate, the Netherlands, 3-5 July 2006
Western Civilization is founded on and sustained by the values, customs, and ordinances of the classical and Judeo-Christian traditions that inform and guide a good and free society. But many of the great books, ideas, minds and the collective experience of our old traditions have been repudiated and are now ignored by the narrow progressivism that dominates intellectual and political life in Europe. Driven by a shared concern for the cultural decline afflicting the continent as a result, thirty conservatives from fourteen countries came together, at the invitation of the Dutch Edmund Burke Stichting, from July 3-5, 2006, in the eighteenth century estate “The Vanenburg” in the Netherlands, to discuss cooperation among European conservatives. Among those present were such philosophers as Roger Scruton and Chantal Delsol, and other scholars and academics, journalists and representatives from various think tanks and institutes.
Among participants there was a great feeling of shared excitement as the three days of intense discussion committed the participants to further their cooperation for Europe’s cultural and intellectual renewal.
The three-day conference programme included lectures on the history of the conservative movement in the United States, the concept of conservatism and the Western Tradition, and a series of country-reports on the political, cultural and intellectual climate in each of the European nations represented at the meeting, particularly in the sphere of higher education, before going on to discuss the practical matters of setting up a new foundation.
In the course of the three-day conference, participants presented a brief overview of the current state of the cultural, intellectual and political life in their respective countries, and the chances for a conservative restoration. Outside of Britain, conservatism has been a marginal political movement in the 19th Century and virtually disappeared after World War II. In the “progressive” decades that followed, the fact that conservatism refers to a political philosophy that is the expression of a certain set of beliefs, ideas and traditions was discarded, and the word became synonymous with “old-fashioned” and “backwards.”
Jorge Soley, of Spain’s Fundación Burke underlined that during their eight years in power, the right-wing Partido Popular committed the fatal error of “saying yes to managing the economy, but no to culture, as if culture was a problem for the left.” Soley suggested that this problem applies to the whole of Europe: that the “right” consists of free-market liberals, who are mostly interested in business. And that is precisely why Europe needs conservatism: to re-awaken those on the right that culture and education matter too much to be left the left. “Although conservatives understand the importance of capitalism and markets in a free society, conservatives must stand for virtue, and not only for the market place.” Roman Joch of the Czech Civic Institute emphasised that society needs to wake up to the fact that there are cultural and moral preconditions for living in society, which the current generations no longer appreciate. But then, someone needs to teach them!
All participants lamented the decline in education that has accompanied the progressivism in politics the last decades. Fr. Marcel Guarnizo, Director of the Educational Initiative for Central and Eastern Europe (EICEE) in Vienna, said for example that its activities were developed precisely because “young people interested in ideas are currently looking for an intellectual home, and that is what we must attempt to provide them with.” Douglas Murray, bestselling author, said: “We may have won the Cold War, but we’ve lost the universities.” Alexandre Pesey, who teaches political philosophy in Paris and founded the Institut de Formation Politique to educate university students in conservative thought, underlined that the cultural climate in France is in part a consequence of the problem of lingering French self-hate and guilt that the anti-bourgeois intellectuals have saddled the country with: for its colonization, for its collaboration, for presumed racism. This self-hate, consequence of the “culture of repudiation”, is also very damaging to the integration of immigrants into society.
Strong agreement emerged that we must wage a battle of ideas in the field of education, and Tuesday evening was dedicated to a discussion on its revival.
The concluding session of the conference was used to discuss and devise an initial strategy to take the first steps towards achieving the European ISI. Different ideas were suggested, proceeding from the general conclusions that: Europe is suffering from a cultural and intellectual crisis; To address this crisis, young people must be given a better understanding of the Western Tradition than they are currently getting at university, and a new institute like ISI could eventually be set up; Closer cooperation between individuals and institutions in Europe devoted to cultural renewal are essential—close contacts with like-minded individuals in North America and elsewhere is also pivotal.
That many conservatives working to promote the “permanent things” in their countries did not even know each other underlined the importance of such events and the need for a further framework of cooperation. The first step would be to set up a meeting place for national organisations, think tanks and individuals, similar in structure to the Philadelphia Society in the United States or the classical liberal Mont Pelerin Society.
With the common desire of participants to further cooperation between European conservatives to work on Europe’s cultural and intellectual renewal, the first pan-European conservative meeting ended on a high note.
The conference began with a lecture by Mark Henrie, Director of Academic Affairs and Senior Editor at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) in the United States, on the history of ISI and the conservative movement in America. ISI has been enormously successful in “conveying to successive generations of college youth an appreciation for the values and institutions that sustain a free and virtuous society”, and to work towards emulating this success in Europe was one of the main purposes of the conference. Henrie told the participants how ISI was founded by Frank Chodorov in 1953, who outlined a “a fifty-year project” to reform the university and society in favor of freedom, and to create a public square for conservatism on campuses at a time when its ideas were mostly excluded — as they are currently in most European universities. To achieve this, ISI developed its core programs: on campus lectures and debates, the honors program and summer school for promising students, the publication of journals like the Intercollegiate Review and Modern Age, books and its student guides to the major disciplines. “America is part of the West, and it would help if Europe were not so decadent,” said Henrie. All participants agreed on this: the West must stand united or fall. A pan-European Institute would provide a vital platform to facilitate and strengthen this transatlantic cooperation.