25 November 2011

A few words on Metternich

Klemens Wenzel Nepomuk Lothar, Fürst von Metternich-Winneburg zu Beilstein

Happy turkey day, gentle readers!

People who know me well are usually not surprised to know that I’ve had a fascination with the historical figure of Klemens Wenzel, Fürst von Metternich, since before I graduated from college: a bundle of contradictions (or seemingly so) drawn to another. Metternich has garnered in much of the world the reputation of an arch-conservative, even an absolutist reactionary, seeking quixotically to hold back an inevitable tide of progress, which finally saw him defeated in the liberal revolutions of 1848. During his heyday, though, he was the bogeyman of many a ‘free-trade’ liberal, nationalist and free-speech advocate in his day, with the anti-nationalist Karlsbader Beschlüsse being the primary symbol of the censorship and repression with which Metternich was associated. As a personal figure, as well, he appeared to exemplify at once both the worst and the best of the old European nobility. Peter Viereck describes him as a ‘Frenchified German dandy… witty, pleasure-loving and arrogant’, which is perhaps not an unfair description. Continental in his attitude toward marriage (to put it politely, given his affairs with a number of high-profile women including Caroline Murat, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister) and almost hubristically confident in his (formidable, to be sure) intelligence and abilities, he nevertheless dedicated those very same talents of which he was so cock-sure entirely to the service of his emperor and to the ancien régime.

Yet, under the international system he engineered, Europe enjoyed over a generation of peace – and what is more, it was not a peace enforced by the hegemony of a single economic or political regime, but rather a participatory and (largely) communicative system wherein powers were balanced with each other. He did not always get along with Emperor Francis; indeed, he opposed the most egregious forms of domestic censorship, advocated moderate local self-rule for Italians and Hungarians, was an ardent defender of the rights of Jews across the Continent in an era when they were still massively unpopular even amongst liberals, and was a consistent advocate for constitutional reforms within the Habsburg Empire. He attempted to bridge the gulf between the serfs, the growing proletarian class, and the landed gentry through his ‘socialisme conservateur’ – a vision of political economy which shares in its cosmopolitan reconciliation of the classes a great deal of overlap with later Catholic social theology, and by which the Prince made himself the ‘enem[y] of anarchy, moral and material’. In a time where liberal thought was converging upon the nation-state as its greatest vehicle of political empowerment, Metternich turned his vision at once upward to a greater international order and downward to more local forms of order.

One may argue the finer points over whether or not what he did was ultimately best for Europe as a whole, but there are many points that I think one can successfully take from his thought. For one thing, Metternich was far-sighted enough to see that the ethnically-homogeneous ideal of the nation-state was a horrible idea (a hearty thank-you to California Constantian for the link!), and that the secret societies within such ideas were allowed to manifest themselves in violent extremes were not a healthy development but rather a ‘gangrene of society’. Though one may decry that the Karlsbader Beschlüsse themselves were an extreme and repressive measure, one must remember that out of the ‘liberal’ Burschenschaften against which they were primarily aimed arose many of the aggressive hyper-nationalist and anti-Semitic tendencies which ultimately plunged the European continent into another total war, a genocide. By contrast, it is well to remember that Prince Metternich’s socialisme conservateur was at once the fountainhead of his support for the traditional monarchical state, as well as being the very source of his defence of the basic dignities of the Italians, the Hungarians and the Jews in Europe.

In keeping with the season, in addition to the other parts of my life for which I give thanks, I feel I owe a debt of gratitude to the intellectual inspiration of Fürst Metternich – a flawed but nevertheless incredibly profound political theorist as well as master diplomat.


  1. Quite a character.

    It is unfortunate that many, especially today, overlook the many brutal atrocities that were committed in the name of so-called "progress". Nationalist nation-states being a prime example, extermination and forced assimilation of indigenous peoples being another.

    And no need to thank me; I stumbled across the article pretty much by accident.

  2. Welcome to the blog, CA Constantian, and thanks for the comment! Accident or no, Mr Stentiford's paper was a great read, even if it tended to be a bit polemical at points - I should check out the 'Small Wars' Journal blog more frequently.

    But yes, I certainly share your assessment of what is commonly meant by 'progress', and the sad consequences of its pursuit for its own sake. I don't really have anything against progress per se, but it always implies a goal, and goals can be unworthy as well as worthwhile.

    Keep up the good writing; I'll keep following up!


  3. Great post! I have been reading about the development of Social Catholicism in Europe and one of the things that I found interesting was how certain "left-wing" ideas developed out of "reactionary" critiques of classical liberalism.

    In the late 19th century, the traditionalist and progressive critics of capitalism split over how to best deal with the reality of industrialism. The traditionalists still clung to the idea of restoring the Ancient Regime, while the progressives accepted the reality of industrialization and sought answers in something like Christian socialism (at least that is my simplistic understanding of how things went).

    I suppose that I am in the "progressive" camp, as I think many paleocons and traditionalists often fail to recognize the unique problems associated with modern capitalism, and that there is no going back without moving forward. I am frustrated by the belief that if only the size of the State were reduced, we could return to some kind of Golden Age.

    This is my major problem with supporters of Ron Paul who are often (rightly) critical of our current form of crony capitalism. I just don't see how Ron Paul's ideology would make things better for regular people on the domestic/economic front.

    It is really a kind of magical thinking, not too different from what you often find on the Left, for example, the belief that a worker’s revolution would solve our problems.

    Sorry for the long rant!

  4. Hi John!

    No problem about the rant. Heck, many of my better posts on this blog take the form of rants...

    I also find myself drawn to the 'reactionary' roots of what would (now) be considered leftist ideas - first through my studies of Confucianism and Hegelian thought in college, and then through picking up some of the lesser-known and lesser-regarded English ones (Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, John Ruskin et al.). They don't really have anything resembling an out-and-out philosophical system such as Hegel had, but they have enough fragments which mesh closely enough with my own experiences and convictions to be meaningful.

    Re: Ron Paul, I was following with interest the conversation you were having on Mr Lindsay's blog post 'All Aboard the Double Dip', regarding the unease with which both you and David regard the bizarre forms palaeolibertarianism is taking on our shores. I do very much respect Ron Paul's convictions on foreign policy and his stance on the marriage of Hudge and Gudge, but I also find the rest of his platform to be either quixotic or detestable.

    Thanks for the comment, as well as for the link-love on your own blog. Hope to hear from you again soon!

    All the best,