The Inventor of Modern Conservatism
From the February 7, 2005 issue: Disraeli and us.
Feb 7, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 20 • By DAVID GELERNTER
BENJAMIN DISRAELI--TWICE PRIME minister of Great Britain, romantic novelist, inventor of modern conservatism--was a neocon in the plain sense of the word, a "new conservative" who began his career on the left. Conservative thinking dates to the dawn of organized society, but modern conservatism--a mass movement, a philosophy not for aristocrats and the rich but for everybody--was Disraeli's creation. That modern conservatism should have been invented by a 19th-century neocon is thought provoking. More surprising:His redefinition of conservatism is still fresh, and his political philosophy has never been more apt.
Conservatism is the most powerful and electric force in the American intellectual landscape. Young people no longer discover the left and get excited; they are far more likely to get their intellectual kicks discovering and experimenting with conservatism. But what exactly do conservatives believe? How do they resolve the seeming paradox that so many conservatives revere the past yet are also progressives, determined to move this nation forward and let it grow, stretch, and inhabit more and more of its own best self? Disraeli produced a definition of conservatism that resolves the problem. It is so terse and compelling, it ranks as a milestone of political thought.
He was a statesman who remodeled Europe and a thinker who examined some of the hardest of all political, social, and philosophical questions: How should democratic government work, what does party politics mean, where do the Jews fit in? I too "would lift up my voice to heaven, and ask," says the hero of his novel Tancred, "What is duty, and what is faith? What ought I to do, and what ought I to believe?" On these and related questions, Disraeli said fantastically improbable things that would be easy to dismiss except that many of them are true.
Like nearly all successful politicians, he was a fine actor and first-rate manipulator, accustomed to saying things he didn't necessarily (wholly) believe. Like nearly all brilliant men, he could be hard to read. Like all celebrated wits and superstar parliamentarians, he was a champion improviser, superb at making things up as he went along. For all these reasons, historians tend to forget his passionate sincerity on the topics he cared about most: Britain, the Jews, the Tories, the government of England. No man ever left behind so many pregnant thoughts for his followers, admirers, and professional interpreters to ignore.
He was born a Jew, but his father had him baptized at age 13 in a fit of pique. Disraeli the elder (who spelled his name Isaac D'Israeli) was angry with the local synagogue for insisting that he serve as an officer and fining him when he refused. Isaac was a modestly well-off literary man who published An Essay on the Manners and Genius of the Literary Character in 1795, and several collections of short pieces on a grab bag of topics, from "The Chinese Language" to "The History of Gloves." They were popular in their day and are still charming and readable, literary snackfood of a high order. Lord Byron admired D'Israeli, and called him the author "whose works in general I have read oftener than perhaps those of any other English author whatever."
Unlike his father, Benjamin was religious by nature. He became a devout Christian. But nearly everyone regarded him as a Jew, and he agreed: He was a Jew, except theologically. As Disraeli saw things, "Jew" was a race--to which he was ferociously proud to belong. ("All is race," he wrote; "there is no other truth.") Bismarck captured the world's attitude to Disraeli at his height. The Iron Chancellor was not easily carried away. But at the Berlin Congress in 1878, where Europe's top statesmen were gathered glittering at the summit of European history, and Disraeli dominated the proceedings, Bismarck said: "Der alte Jude, das ist der Mann"--The old Jew, that's the man.
His "racial" Jewishness affected his worldview profoundly. Jewishness lovingly embraced though imperfectly understood taught him plenty. Taught him the meaning of defiance and honor, of winning against long odds and looking after your own. Taught him loyalty, the real nature of aristocracy, the all-importance of spiritual intangibles that rationalists, utilitarians, and modernists like to dismiss. All these things weighed heavily with Disraeli and, through him, helped shape modern politics, modern Britain, modern America, and the world of 2005.
HE WAS BORN IN 1804. He ran up debts as a young man that followed him deep into middle age. He wrote novels throughout his career; some made splashes, some were critical successes, some became famous--but none made big sales or big money until Lothair, which appeared when he was 65. He ran for Parliament and lost four times before he finally won in 1837. His maiden speech in the House of Commons was a famous fiasco. It was baroque and overblown--and (furthermore) Disraeli had brazenly offended an opposition clique earlier in the session; that was his real mistake. By the end of the speech he was all but drowned out by hoots, howls, and hisses. He finished with a celebrated promise, shouted at the top of his lungs so that people would hear: "Ay, sir, and though I sit down now, the time will come when you will hear me!"
In Parliament and the Tory party, he worked his passage by skill, nerve, and transcendent talent, facing down a fair (though not disabling) load of anti-Semitism along the way. When the Earl of Derby retired in 1868 and it was his turn at last to lead the party and become prime minister, some Tories grudged him his position. His first term as prime minister lasted only 11 months. The six years of his "great ministry" began in 1874, when he was 69 and starting to fail in health and strength. "Power came to him too late in life," his protégé T.E. Kebbel admits in his 1907 memoirs. Victoria created him Earl of Beaconsfield in 1876; he died in '81. Yet for all his tribulations, his career in the end was such a blowout triumph that "from the hour of his death," Lord Randolph Churchill (Winston's father) wrote, "every Tory, in and out of Parliament, high or low, rich or poor, had exclaimed, muttered or thought: 'Oh, if Lord Beaconsfield were alive!'" "Disraeli's life was a succession of surprises," the Encyclopedia Britannica of 1911 reports, "but none so great as that he should be remembered after death more widely, lastingly, respectfully, affectionately, than any other statesman in the long reign of Queen Victoria."
You could summarize his career, Lord Randolph thought, in a single sentence: "Failure, failure, failure, partial success, renewed failure, ultimate and complete triumph." The one ineffably sad thing about his life was that his beloved, devoted wife died in 1872, two years before he embarked at last on his triumphant great ministry.
If Disraeli had never become prime minister he would be famous anyway, for dreaming up modern conservatism and (some argue) the two-party system itself in its modern form. If he had never entered Parliament he would still be famous, for helping mold England's social conscience--which England passed on to America and the West.
He would be famous in other ways too. Robert Blake writes of Disraeli's two best-known novels, Coningsby and Sybil, that "he would be remembered for these if he had written nothing else and never become a minister." Gertrude Himmelfarb calls him co-inventor of the "social problem" novel; Isaiah Berlin names him "inventor of the political novel." His novels can be slapdash, but at their best they have the witty crystalline prose, the penetration and grace of F. Scott Fitzgerald at his best--although Disraeli (like Fitzgerald) was too apt to coast without pedaling, seduced by his own brilliance. ("When I want to read a novel," he said, "I write one.")
And he would be remembered, had he never entered politics, as a wit and a phrase-maker. When the champagne appeared at a badly prepared banquet: "Thank God for something warm." In a speech at Oxford: "Is man an ape or an angel? I, my lord, I am on the side of the angels." A man should retire when he reaches "his anecdotage." In an 1878 letter: "It is not the beginning of the end; it is the end of the beginning." (There is this and other evidence that Churchill read him closely.)
But above all Disraeli would be remembered, practical politics aside, as a thinker who grappled in his own way with the hardest problems of all.
WHAT SORT OF MAN WAS HE? Sara Austen, friend of his youth, writes revealingly that Disraeli was "so actively kind." (Her emphasis.) He did not merely have good intentions; he was a good man. He might have been the most tactful Briton of the 19th century. When the queen published some slight notes (Leaves from the Journal of our life in the Highlands), he found occasion to begin a sentence: "We authors, Ma'am . . . "--which evidently made a big impression. He once told his wife, who had stayed up late to serve him his favorite dinner upon his return from the House, "Why, my Dear, you are more like a mistress than a wife!" She told the story to Kebbel, and "I could see," Kebbel writes, "that she took it as a very high compliment indeed." Naturally.
Ordinarily he is evaluated against his great Liberal rival William Ewart Gladstone. But the two are incomparable. Gladstone was a politician, albeit deep and principled. Disraeli was a visionary man of letters, best understood in relation to such thinkers as John Milton and William Blake. Granted he was no great artist, but like Milton and Blake, he was a great man--and in some ways, the three thought along similar lines. They were masters of the English language (Disraeli's best genre was the partially impromptu parliamentary speech). They were each obsessed with God and prophecy, with England and her relationship to Israel.
Those who see Disraeli as an anomaly (a Jewish Tory prime minister?) should remember Britain's long, deep obsession with classical Hebrew civilization during an intensely "formative" period. They should recall Milton's explaining, in Paradise Regained, that Israel's prophets are "Men divinely taught, and better teaching / The solid rules of civil government, / In their majestic, unaffected style, / Than all the oratory of Greece and Rome." They should recall Blake's Jerusalem, whose theme is the marriage (understood on many levels) of Jerusalem and Albion. Should recall Blake imagining himself the prophet Elijah and proclaiming,
Among such men as Blake and Milton, Disraeli and his obsession with Judaism and Christianity, with Israel and England, is right at home.
Disraeli saw "Jew" as, first and foremost, a nationality or race. The world having visited on them "every term of obloquy and every form of persecution," he wrote in his Biography of Lord George Bentinck, the Jews are, notwithstanding, "the human family that has contributed most to human happiness." Of course he felt deeply about Britain too: "Zeal for the greatness of England was the passion of his life" (thus his foreign minister, and the future prime minister, Lord Salisbury). Disraeli wrote in Tancred: "The general condition of England is superior to that of any other country"; "there is more political freedom, more social happiness, more sound religion, and more material prosperity among us, than in any nation in the world."
Pride is basic not merely to his character but to his worldview. He admired the English aristocracy but he was positive that, on their own terms, he outranked them. The main theme of Tancred (notes Cecil Roth) is "the essential aristocracy of the Jewish people." Kebbel remarks that Disraeli "believed himself to possess a pedigree compared with which the pedigrees of the oldest families in Christendom were as things of yesterday."
"Yes, I am a Jew," he explained not over-subtly to a politician who had attacked him on that account, "and when the ancestors of the right honorable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon." His over-the-top pride, set against widespread Jewish self-hatred of the sort embodied by (for example) Marx or (nowadays) Noam Chomsky, is intensely refreshing--a cool dip on a hot day. Too bad so many Jewish intellectuals are afraid of the water. Take Isaiah Berlin, who breaks out the sneer-quotes to mock Disraeli for conceiving himself "lifted above the teeming multitude by the genius of a 'great' race." No doubt Berlin would have rated America, too, not great but merely "great"--or was he afraid to exult in Jewish genius lest his gentile friends not like him any more? Berlin is long dead, but many thousands like him live on. Who needs anti-Semites when so many Jewish scholars attribute a robust interest in Jewish achievement not to pride but to "insecurity"--a disease with which they seem suspiciously familiar?
Pride in Britain drove Disraeli's foreign policy as prime minister. His first foreign policy success, according to the 1911 Britannica, "was the restoration [to Britain] of a much-damaged self-respect." Disraeli went to the Congress of Berlin determined that Britain's slipping prestige in Europe should be restored and her voice heard and her will respected. It is no accident that his once-opponent John Roebuck should have announced, on the PM's return, that "England now holds as proud a position as she has ever held, and that is due to the sagacity, and power, and conduct of the despised person once called Benjamin Disraeli but now Lord Beaconsfield."
Disraeli was a bullfighter-of-the-spirit who loved and admired the British public as a bullfighter loves and admires the bull--but was determined to master it, break it to his will. His ambition was gigantic and almost (but not quite) all-consuming. "There is no incentive to exertion," he announces in Tancred, "like the passion for a noble renown." It turned out to be easier for him to climb "to the top of the greasy pole" (his phrase) in politics than literature, and so he devoted his best efforts to molding and leading Britain's Tory party.
Genius is defiance. He got caught up once in an altercation with an Irish politician who finished by slinging anti-Semitic slurs--and who had forsworn dueling; so Disraeli called out the man's son, and worked hard to bring the duel about. In the end the law stepped in and prevented it. But no less a personage than the Duke of Wellington commended Disraeli's behavior (Cecil Roth reports) as "the most damned gentleman-like thing" he had heard of for some time. What struck the public at first as mere reckless publicity-seeking came to seem, in time, like reckless bravery. When he died, "courage" is the virtue for which his archenemy Gladstone chose to praise him. His philosophy amounts to a Metaphysics of Pride.
WE CAN'T PICTURE THE MAN TRULY unless we know that women obsessed him his whole life. (And he obsessed them.) He was dark, handsome, exotic-looking--"strikingly handsome," according to an 1895 account, "with an air of easy grace." ("All the women are on my side," he wrote a female friend of his ill-starred first try for Parliament in 1832.) In youth he was a sharp dresser to the point of absurdity; when he grew older and went into Parliament, he got a grip and emerged as a model of good taste. By 1844 he felt able, in describing one of his characters in Coningsby, to mention "his dress rich and effeminate." That was Disraeli all over, baiting the public, reminding it that his own clothes had been "rich and effeminate" once; daring people to make something of it. Teasing the toro of public opinion like a master bullfighter who has been gored repeatedly but come back stronger.
As a young man he scored some torrid love affairs, but in 1839 he married an older woman, carefully explaining that he was doing it for her money. Then he fell in love with her--so devoutly that their marriage remains a paradigm in the high-pressure world of high-stakes politics. His novel Sybil is dedicated to "the most severe of critics, but--a perfect Wife!"
We picture him in middle age with his kindly, moist, knowing, nearsighted eyes, his face that seems more Jewish by the month, his quickness that can take your breath away if he feels like it. He listens to his own sentences like a connoisseur: loves hearing himself talk, especially to women; is a sought-out listener, too. Retails gossip with winning enjoyment.
In old age he grows silent. He is an international celebrity, absolute center of attention wherever he appears. But he can sit for hours at a dinner party and say not a single word. His forehead is high, face lined, demeanor quiet and tired, eyes deep-set, quizzical, nearsighted as always, wistful.
When he died there was a startling outburst of national mourning. "No such demonstration of grief was expected," reports the 1911 Britannica, "even by those who grieved the most."
BENJAMIN DISRAELI is the founding father of modern conservatism as it exists in Britain and, arguably, throughout the Western world. But why was he a conservative? How did this quintessential outsider come to lead Britain's Tories, once the insider's party par excellence?
He entered politics as an independent with radical tendencies. In some respects he held radical views his whole life. But he was elected to Parliament as a Conservative, and remained a Tory forever after. Why Conservative? people asked, and still do. A Jewish writer who anguished over poverty, believed in democracy and condemned (in prophetic language) the evils of "exclusion"? Isaiah Berlin explains that Disraeli's conservatism was phony but not hypocritical, because he was taken in by his own act. "He was an actor, and he became one with his act: the mask became one with his features: second nature replaced first." Which is too clever by half. Yes, Disraeli was an actor; he was an actor who happened to love and honor tradition--and so he had to be a Tory. (And he was hardly the first Jew, as he pointed out himself, to love and honor tradition.)
In Disraeli's youth, Tories were the Church of England, country-squire party; Whigs were associated with Puritans and religious dissenters, with the trading towns and manufacturing centers and the great grasping, sprawling capital city. But the Reform Act of 1832 put Britain for the first time (a mere 60-odd years after the Declaration of Independence) on the road to democracy and changed the shape of politics.
Before 1832, Britain's Conservative party was a rich man's party, promoting the interests of wealthy landowners. Such a party was plausible so long as Parliament was chosen by a tiny, monied subset of the population. Although the 1832 reform did not establish democracy--it enlarged the franchise to a point where roughly one in five adult males could vote--it made clear that Britain was headed towards democracy and would get there eventually. Obviously no "rich man's party" can prevail in a democracy. However prosperous the nation, the rich are never a majority. The Tory party had to change or face slow, painful death as democracy came on strong.
Notice that Democrats in America insist to this day that Republicans, like pre-1832 British Tories, are the "party of the rich." John Edwards made this a major theme of his 2004 campaign. But the idea makes no sense. If it were true, Republicans could only win elections if the public were stupid--granted, a hypothesis many Democrats can live with.
Post-1832, Britain's Tories had two main alternatives. They could turn themselves into a watered-down version of the opposition or become something brand new. Disraeli believed in the second alternative. He wanted the Tories to care about poverty, favor democracy, be "inclusive," and hold the nation's traditions in deep romantic reverence--in other words, be just like him. But his wants were irrelevant unless he could win control of his party.
Which he did, by one of the strangest maneuvers in British parliamentary history. The 1832 Reform Act was a Whig measure and a huge popular success. The Tories emerged bewildered and stymied, like 1990s Republicans after a run-in with Bill Clinton. Sir Robert Peel became their leader; Peel, writes G.M. Trevelyan (who published his classic History of England in the 1920s), "reconstituted a 'Conservative' party out of the wreckage of the 'Tory' party destroyed by the Reform bill." But Peel's was a pale pastel Toryism, a watered-down Whiggism that attracted some Whigs but inspired no one. "Tory men and Whig measures," Disraeli called it--like the administration of Richard Nixon, or the views of Northeastern Republicans.
Peel became prime minister in August 1841 after the Whigs lost a vote of confidence and then a general election. With Peel and his weak-tea conservatives running the show, Disraeli was a mere disgruntled back-bencher, no better than "a dark horse" (his phrase) for party leadership. But his moment arrived (unexpectedly) in 1846, when Peel decided to abolish the corn laws, import duties on grain. Free trade was a Whig-style issue. In promoting it, Peel was ignoring the most devoted and rock-ribbed Tories--who despised free trade (they wanted protection from cheap foreign grain) and were accordingly primed for revolt. Disraeli was no lover of the corn laws but saw his chance to beat Peel by leading the pro-corn-law rebellion. Despite opposition from his own party, Peel succeeded in abolishing the corn laws. But soon afterwards, the Tory rebels abolished him.
Disraeli's maneuver split the party. The government fell, Peel resigned, and the Whigs took over. "Riven in twain on the Free Trade question," say Arnold Wright and Philip Smith in their colorful Parliament Past and Present (1895), "the conservatives sat on opposite sides of the House--the [Tory] Protectionists sharing the Liberal benches with the Whigs and Radicals, and the [Tory] Peelites taking their place on the opposition benches." (The layout of the House of Commons forces everyone literally to choose a side.) Disraeli had deliberately driven the jalopy of Toryism off a cliff. It was a cool 28 years before the Conservatives once again commanded a clear House of Commons majority. That gave him the time he needed to refashion the wreckage into a new kind of Toryism.
Although he had used pro-corn-law sentiment to beat Peel, he soon admitted that these protectionist laws were dead ducks and couldn't possibly be revived. Some called his reversal unprincipled, which was fair up to a point. But Disraeli's real grievance was that Peel lacked vision, lacked any sense of what Toryism could become. Disraeli was Newt Gingrich taking control of the House Republicans for philosophic reasons but not by philosophic methods.
Disraeli created the new Conservative party in opposition--and while he was at it, created the modern idea of an "opposition party." Blake calls him "perhaps the first politician systematically to uphold the doctrine that it is the duty of the Opposition to oppose. Indeed, he might be said by this practice to have established a precedent on which all subsequent Opposition leaders have acted."
No matter what the issue, if the government was pro, Disraeli felt obliged to be con. "Above all maintain the line of demarcation between parties," Disraeli said, "for it is only by maintaining the independence of party that you can maintain the integrity of public men, and the power and influence of Parliament itself." He believed that a party must stand for a consistent, coherent worldview--not for an incoherent parade of tactical decisions with no overarching purpose or underlying philosophy. A party in the age of expanding democracy must write its principles in bold block letters, plainly and clearly. (Not a bad idea even today.)
But there were two reservations. Disraeli saw his duty as opposition, never obstruction; never to prevent the House from voting. Furthermore, when the nation was at war, the opposition was duty bound to support the war effort. Disraeli disliked the Crimean War and said so, but assured the House that no English general fighting abroad would face any opposition effort "to depreciate his efforts and to ridicule his talents" so long as he was in charge.
THUS DISRAELI FOUND HIMSELF in a position to rebuild the Tory party. How did he go about it? Reverence for tradition was central to Toryism and to Disraeli's own personality. He wanted his new-style Tory party to embody respect for tradition--wanted it to be new and old, to be a modern setting for ancient gems, a new crown displaying old jewels. This was a popular idea in 19th-century Britain, where "the future" and "the past" were both discovered, simultaneously.
Disraeli's approach was like Barry and Pugin's in designing a new home for Parliament. The old one burned to the ground (except for a magnificent medieval hall and a few odds and ends) in 1834. The new structure, it was decided, should be built of modern materials and work like a modern building with all the conveniences--but should look medieval. The intention wasn't play-acting or aesthetic fraud; it was to use the best ideas of the past and present alongside each other.
The result was wildly successful, one of history's greatest public buildings. Disraeli aimed to accomplish something similar for the Tory party. His underlying thought, which defined Disraeli-type Toryism and reshaped conservatism for all time, was that the Conservative party was the national party. Sounds simple and is. But everything else followed. If you understood "national" properly, then (on the one hand) the Tories must be a democratic, "universal," progressive party that cared about the poor and working classes--since the party was national it must care for the whole nation, for all classes. But the Tories must also be a patriotic party that revered ancient traditions and institutions, again inasmuch as they were the national--and therefore honored profoundly the nation's heritage and distinctive character.
He put it like this:
In a progressive country change is constant; and the great question is not whether you should resist change which is inevitable, but whether that change should be carried out in deference to the manners, the customs, the laws and the traditions of a people, or whether it should be carried out in deference to abstract principles, and arbitrary and general doctrines.
(Which is exactly the issue that divides Republicans and Democrats today.) If Tories were "national," the Liberal party was ("to give it an epithet," he said, "a noble epithet--which it may perhaps deserve") the "philosophic" party.
In his Vindication of the English Constitution he explained that "the Tory party in this country is the national party; it is the really democratic party of England." The "national" party is the inclusive, universal party--"universal" meaning "all classes of Britain." "If we must find new forces to maintain the ancient throne and immemorial monarchy of England," he said in Parliament, "I for one hope that we may find that novel power in the invigorating energies of an educated and enfranchised people." According to one school of opinion (Cecil Roth reports), had Disraeli lived and got another shot at the premiership in the 1880s, he would have "extended the franchise to women, this being according to The Times of June 13th 1884, the 'trump Conservative card' which he kept up his sleeve."
Thus the radical new idea of "Tory Democracy" (not Disraeli's phrase but his idea)--conservatism by and for the man in the street: Teddy Roosevelt conservatism, JFK conservatism, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan conservatism, the conservatism that has been so potent in modern Britain and America. JFK fits the pattern beautifully: people's man, tough stand-up-for-America man, lady's man--so to speak. But did Disraeli influence JFK? Like nearly every politician of his generation, Kennedy was deeply influenced by Churchill, who was deeply influenced by his father, who was deeply influenced by Dizzy.
As Disraeli saw it, liberals and conservatives were equally progressive. But liberals were rational internationalists who worried what the Germans would say. Conservatives were romantic nationalists who worried what their forefathers would have said. (Thus "national" Republicans invoke the wisdom of the people and the authority of the Founding Fathers. "Philosophic" Democrats invoke the wisdom of the intellectuals and the authority of the United Nations.)
Designing this new-old Tory party posed hard problems: How to preserve the Tories' heartfelt devotion to tradition and ancient institutions, but add an equally fervent belief in democracy? The "national" party was perfect. And for Disraeli the idea came naturally. There was nothing forced about his use of "nationality" or the enormous mystical significance he attached to the idea. He had always felt just this way about his own Jewish nationality, which played (in his own life) a role of deep mystical significance. Hard-headed but profoundly spiritual nationalism came naturally to him as a Jew, and turned out to be exactly the right basis for a new, progressive conservatism.
GIVEN DISRAELI'S IDEAS AND PRINCIPLES, how did he govern? His credentials as a progressive were just as strong as Gladstone's, and Disraeli dismissed the idea that Liberals were in any way, shape, or form more "compassionate" than Conservatives. Disraeli and Thomas Carlyle were two prominent Tory thinkers who lit into the reactionary poor law of 1834: "Carlyle and Disraeli jeered at the statisticians who thought the condition of the poor could be measured in wages and prices, food consumption and longevity," Gertrude Himmelfarb writes. She calls Dickens's Hard Times, Disraeli's Sybil, and two novels by Elizabeth Gaskell "archetypes" of the brand new "social-problem novel." "What Sybil and Hard Times share," she writes, is a "sense of verisimilitude that spills over even into their rather melodramatic and satirical passages. . . . Even [Disraeli's] critics paid tribute to his zeal as a social reporter, his attempt to seek out the best evidence on the condition-of-the-people question."
Disraeli was a social-conscience man--who connected compassion and social justice with Judaism. "The Saxon, the Sclav [sic], and the Celt," he wrote in Lord Bentinck, "have adopted most of the laws and many of the customs of these Arabian tribes"--by which he meant the Jews; "all their literature and all their religion. They are therefore indebted to them for much that regulates, much that charms, and much that solaces existence. The toiling multitude rest every seventh day by virtue of a Jewish law." And so on.
Unsurprisingly, domestic legislation enacted during Disraeli's "great ministry" constitutes (according to Blake) "the biggest installment of social reform passed by any one government in the nineteenth century." Some historians point out that Disraeli himself was only marginally involved in the actual legislation; the details were all worked out by his enterprising Home Secretary Richard Cross. But after all, Disraeli was old and tired by the late 1870s, and there was no mistaking his intentions. He had been writing and talking about them in public and private, in novels and essays, as a back-and front-bencher, in government and opposition, on the floor of the House and on platforms all over the country for nearly half a century.
Just as he saw "nationality" as a mystical attribute shared by every Briton, he saw the peerage and monarchy as national institutions that belonged to every Briton. He democratized not only the Tory party but the British monarchy. The titled nobility, he believed, were ombudsmen of the people--they alone among rich Englishmen had a duty and could be counted on to look out for the whole nation. Here once again his Jewish background played a role in his political thinking. The Jews were Europe's true aristocracy. Therefore, as a self-appointed member of the club, he looked benignly on England's titled nobility even before he was created Earl of Beaconsfield (and later, like Churchill and not many other Britons, was offered and turned down a dukedom).
When the "great ministry" began, Disraeli's focus switched to foreign affairs. He became Lord Beaconsfield two years into the six-year period. Monypenny and Buckle, authors of the standard Disraeli biography (first published in six volumes between 1910 and 1920), write that "the name Disraeli" suggests "the destroyer of Peel, the re-creator of the Conservative Party . . . the promoter of Tory Democracy. The name Beaconsfield has quite other associations . . . the imperial and European statesman, the faithful custodian of his country's interests at a critical epoch in international politics, the leading figure at a European Congress."
His devotion to Judaism put him in vague, romantic awe of The East. (He referred to Jews as "Arabian" or "Asian," to Jewish wisdom as the "Asian wisdom" by which Europe lived.) He was fascinated by Britain's holdings in India. (A character in Tancred casually proposes that the seat of the British Empire should be transferred from London to Delhi.) Once again big consequences followed from his infatuations.
Disraeli became "the regenerator and representative of the Imperial idea in England," reports the 1911 Britannica. Cecil Roth writes that "his intuition, or almost vision, of a new relation between England and her overseas possessions" made him "the second founder of the British Empire in its modern sense"--"modern" meaning an Empire fated to convert itself eventually into a "Commonwealth" of independent states.
He made Victoria "Empress of India." (To adopt this title was a suggestion he did not intend for her to take quite seriously. But she did, quite seriously.) His goal was a closer relation between the Indian people and the sovereign, who would take it upon herself to guarantee personally that their laws and religions would be respected. He acquired a large stake in the Suez Canal company for Britain, in part to protect Britain's route to India. He was determined to keep Russia out of Constantinople, partly because he believed that a Russian Constantinople would threaten the route to India. His views on Constantinople, and his determination that Britain should reassert her influence in Europe, led to his triumph at the Congress of Berlin--which peacefully redrew the map of Europe and did in fact keep the Russians out of Constantinople (or Istanbul)--of which they remain non-owners today. "A few years back, it was fashionable to decry his policy," Cecil Roth wrote in 1951--"a reaction against the earlier stage of patriotic glorification. But had it not succeeded, Russia would certainly have had long since her Mediterranean outlet, with incalculable consequences to the history of the world."
WHAT OF DISRAELI'S IDEAS? How do they hold up, and where do they stand today? A nationality for Disraeli is a state of mind or sensibility or consciousness emerging out of the measureless past. (Its essence being a state of mind, it cannot easily be communicated in words, any more than a religious state of mind can be.) An individual might or might not be sensitive enough to tune in this "broadcast," to hear it and resonate with it. "Hear the voice of the Bard!" says William Blake,
Who Present, Past & Future sees;
Disraeli, for one, heard music in the rustling train of time (as she sweeps grandly forward). If you are sensitive enough to "tune in" your own nationality--to be aware of your history and forebears and ancient institutions--you make yourself part of a living organism; take your place in a continuum--a living thing that was born when your nation was born and will live for as long as it lives. For Disraeli, liberalism is (merely) rational and reasonable. Conservatism, being national, is poetic and passionate.
One consequence among many: Schoolchildren (Disraeli believed) are natural Tories. During the last generation or two, many Americans figured that youthful idealism made for Democrats and left-wingers automatically. Disraeli saw things just the other way: You are driven to make society better not by ideology but by sense of duty, your sense of oneness with the nation and its history. A romantic idea, he freely admits; the sort of thing that appeals to schoolchildren. Duty and honor were central to Disraeli's worldview. His proudest achievement, after all, was to bring home what he called "peace with honor" from the Berlin Congress. He was no warmonger; he called the Crimean War "just but unnecessary." But he did believe in peace through strength, through courage, through unqualified readiness to do your duty and (if need be) display your valor--ideas that the young once found appealing, intimately tied up as they are with romance and eros. And today, America's young people are indeed--at least by some calculations--more conservative than their elders.
The Liberal says, in despairing disbelief: Can't you sense the world around us? Don't you care about its disapproval? The Conservative says, in despairing disbelief: Can't you sense the generations behind us? Don't you care about their disapproval? Liberals live "horizontally," spiritually in touch (they believe) with all the world's nations. Conservatives live "vertically," spiritually in touch (they believe) with their forebears and with generations to come.
Marx and Disraeli are perfect countertypes--partly the same, partly opposite (like particle and anti-particle in nuclear physics; when they meet, they destroy each other). Marx and Disraeli are the principal creators of the modern left and right respectively--two 19th-century Jews whose fathers had them baptized, who worked mainly in London, who counted on British power to protect the world from a dangerous Czarist Russia, who died within two years of each other, in 1881 (Disraeli) and '83 (Marx). They were both obsessed with Jews and Judaism, but Marx (the atheist left-winger) hated Jews, Judaism, and religion in general; Disraeli (the devout right-winger) felt differently.
Marx says, "Workers of the world, unite!" Disraeli says, Peoples of Britain, unite! Marx foresees one class united around the world. Disraeli envisions all classes united throughout the nation. Socialists had "internationals," but conservatives never felt any need to blend their national parties into transnational organizations.
Yet Marx-to-Disraeli is not finally a left-to-right spectrum. Marx gave birth not only to the modern left but to totalitarianism. Marx's end of the spectrum is the "shame end," Disraeli's the "pride end." Shame was a powerful force in Marx's life; witness his self-hating anti-Semitism. Twentieth-century totalitarianism was created (not only but in large part) by shame. Stalinist Russia and Nazi Germany were born out of humiliating defeat in the First World War: Germany beat Russia (Russian communism followed); the allies beat Germany (Nazism followed). Defeat and shame were not the only forces at work, but we can't understand the 20th century without them. Nor can we understand today's radical Islamic terrorism and totalitarianism (totalitarians being terrorists who have already got what they want) without understanding the central role of defeat and shame.
Modern liberals are nothing like Bolsheviks or Nazis. They are closer to Disraeli's end of the spectrum than Marx's. Yet American liberals are more likely than conservatives to focus on the shameful in American history, conservatives on the things that make them proud.
ONE FINAL DISRAELI MYSTERY: If he felt so strongly about Judaism, why did he spend his life as a Christian? It was all a mistake. (Albeit, in some ways, a lucky one.)
On religious grounds as on so many others, he was a rare bird. Converts from Judaism to Christianity are usually hostile to one or the other--either to Christianity (which they felt forced for some reason to adopt) or Judaism (which they shucked off the first chance they got). Or they are indifferent to religion altogether. But Disraeli as usual was none of the above. He was a loyal and devoted Jew who loved Christianity. He was a serious, devout Christian capable of saying (through a character in a novel): "We agree that half Christendom worships a Jewess, and the other half a Jew. Now let me ask one more question. Which is the superior race, the worshiped or the worshippers?" (The distortion of Christian doctrine is deliberate, designed to make a point.) At the same time Nietzsche was inventing something called "our Judeo-Christian heritage," mainly to disparage it, Disraeli came closer than anyone ever has to fleshing out the idea and embodying it in his own thought.
Nonetheless: If he did love Judaism, why did he not return to it? He spoke up loud and clear for a Jew's right to sit in Parliament. But when he was first elected, Jews had yet to win that right. Had he remained Jewish, his political career might have died in the womb. But he was a proud, courageous, defiant man. If he had concluded that Judaism was right for him, he would have been unable to keep himself from leaping back in with both feet. He didn't because of a mistake; he was misinformed.
Monypenny and Buckle write of "Disraeli's great conception of Christianity as completed Judaism." Theologically, this was his central belief. The Hebrew Bible was sublime but incomplete. He was struck by the fact that Jesus, asked to summarize Christianity, cited two verses from the Hebrew Bible; in ethical terms Christianity, he believed, boils down to Judaism. Yet he also believed that the Hebrew Bible could not be the basis of a modern religion all by itself. Its basic ideas are right for all time, but the details were intended only for Jews of the distant past. Softening, mellowing, tempering were called for to turn this rough powerful steel into a safe instrument for the modern world. This Jewish sword had to be beaten into a universal plowshare. And if Jews would only just accept this (so painfully obvious!) truth, they would understand that the New Testament is the essential completion of the Hebrew Bible. And naturally they would all become Christian.
The strange irony is that Jews do accept the main part of this argument and always have. They have always regarded the Hebrew Bible as "incomplete." Have always regarded the idea that you could base your whole life on it as naive and wrong. But normative Judaism regards the Talmud, the "spoken Torah," as possessing the same sanctity and canonicity as the Hebrew Bible (or "written Torah"). Under this doctrine, the Talmud accomplishes what Disraeli conceived the New Testament as accomplishing. Exactly.
The Talmud is the "New Testament" of the Jews. The analogy is precise. Jews have no need for a New Testament because they already have one. Disraeli misunderstood, but pointed the way (accidentally) to a deep religious truth.
HE WAS GIGANTIC. Even his mistakes were gigantic. One of the largest unplowed fields in modern scholarship is classical Israel's deep influence on the development of modern Britain and America. Fania Oz-Salzberger has done important work on the monumental influence of the Hebrew Bible and (in some cases) post-Biblical rabbinics on such seminal English political thinkers as John Selden, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke. She has also pointed out the ways in which this influence tends to be edited out of modern intellectual history. Recently the Shalem Center in Jerusalem sponsored a conference on "Political Hebraism" that dealt with many of these same issues. Disraeli's career is a hint that in this particular field, much material awaits excavation. The more one ponders the evidence, the more Jewish ideas--modern and ancient--emerge as basic to the modern state.
Two of Disraeli's central interests, patriotism and democracy, were important to George Bush's 2004 victory. In this nation the people and not the courts are meant to lay out the moral and social foundations of society, subject only to constitutional absolutes. When anti-democratic judges and elected officials decide to update America's moral code on their own authority, the people get upset. Democracy in America has been hurt badly where it counts most. Disraeli knew well and said often: Nothing counts more than society's moral foundations. Next to that, all other issues are small change.
Patriotism favors Republicans on a deeper level than many of them seem to realize. No one questions the personal patriotism of Democratic leaders. The real question is different: Where do you rank patriotism as a public virtue? Anyone who has looked at young people nowadays (in the Blue States especially) knows that, since we no longer teach them to be patriotic, many of these Blue State Specials no longer are. No country has the luxury of not speaking up for itself to its own children in its own schools. For a generation and more, we in the wealthy, influential, profoundly self-important Blue Regions have run our schools as if we were too sophisticated for any such low-brow, cornball drivel as teaching children to love their country. If this nation is serious about defeating terrorism, we must teach our children why we fight. From where I stand, we are not doing it--at least, not in Connecticut. The conservative party should be the national party, Disraeli said, and he knew what he was talking about.
David Gelernter is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.