In recent years, Rod Dreher argued that Christians may need to retreat from a hostile world in order to maintain their way of life and their sanity. Modeling his proposal on the Christian monasteries that kept learning and culture alive in the collapsing Roman empire, he called it the Benedict Option. In a similar way, many on the Right have counseled starting families and creating separate communities composed of select groups of fellow believers.
There is a word for this strategy: “quiescence.” It is rooted in the belief that doing battle with the culture is both unlikely to succeed and also corrupting. Proponents argue that it is more realistic to preserve a small flame of civilization than to try to spread the fire of truth in a hostile world.
The problem with this option is that it’s not an option. It’s giving up.
The forces of the aggressive, secular Left are not going to let any of us retreat into our own enclaves. They will hunt down every last private club, pizza shop, and bakery out of mere spite. They will steal your kids and destroy your life.
For anyone opposed to society’s fast-changing rules, you can expect the Branch Davidian treatment.
This is no mere hyperbole. In the early 20th century, revolutionary leftist movements seized power in Portugal, Spain, France, and Mexico. They proceeded to suppress religious freedom, seize property, and inflict violence and disorder. This history has been mostly forgotten, especially in the United States, overshadowed by the twin monstrosities of Soviet Communism and German Nazism. But the aggressive, anti-Christian Left of that era is worth studying because it is similar in many ways to today’s militant leftists.
As people in that era learned, passive resistance did not work. The only thing that worked was the acquisition of real power. Without the willingness to use state power, civilization cannot exist and society will be ruined. The Left’s lust for power is motivated by its obsession with remaking society and rooting out oppression. What conservatives see as a harmless pursuit of one’s individual values, the Left deems an obstacle to progress and the perpetuation of social or racial injustice. As they are fond of saying, “The personal is political.”
This has been the chief mistake of the conservative movement in America. It has mostly reacted to the Left, in the words of William F. Buckley, by “standing athwart history and yelling ‘Stop!’”
But in this posture, the Left calls the tune, sets the agenda, and declares what will be permitted. In practice, “Stop!” only means “slow down.” The American Right soon adopts the radical cause of yesteryear. In a year of riots and rising crime, who can forget the ridiculous calls for criminal justice reform at the 2020 Republican National Convention?
Similarly, the Right’s penchant for libertarianism has led it to eschew the use of power, even when it has the tools of the state at its disposal. It fights by gentleman’s rules in what is increasingly a dirty war, proud of its self-defeating commitment to “principle.” Thus, Trump did not clean house of his enemies in the government, nor have he and other Republicans done much—other than kvetch—at the hostile political interference of Big Finance and Big Tech.
We can learn from an alternate and mostly successful response to a very similar problem. While the Left mostly triumphed in France and Mexico, in Spain and Portugal self-conscious counterrevolutionary political movements stopped them cold during the 1920s and ’30s.
A Century of Hate
Spain, Portugal, and other mostly Latin nations threw off their monarchies and became republics in the early 20th century. These new republics were modeled not on the American system, but on the more radical Jacobin regime of the French Revolution. In other words, they were explicitly leftist and animated by hostility to traditional society, the Catholic Church, and the historic identities of their people.
Under the leadership of Afonso Costa, the justice minister [of the Portuguese First Republic], the revolution immediately targeted the Catholic Church: churches were plundered, convents were attacked and clergy were harassed. Scarcely had the provisional government been installed when it began devoting its entire attention to an anti-religious policy, in spite of the disastrous economic situation. On 10 October—five days after the inauguration of the Republic—the new government decreed that all convents, monasteries and religious orders were to be suppressed. All residents of religious institutions were expelled and their goods confiscated. The Jesuits were forced to forfeit their Portuguese citizenship.
Similar revolutionary activity ensued in Spain, Mexico, and France. In their eyes, the revolutionaries were dragging their backward societies into the modern age. Of course, the Bolsheviks, and Saddam Hussein for that matter, claimed to be doing the same thing.
After years of unrest, radical change, economic distress, and political violence, many Portuguese citizens realized the Left’s promises of modernization and prosperity were false. The new system was more harsh and less predictable than the one it replaced. Before freedom and democracy could prevail, order and prosperity were required, as well as security for the major components of Portuguese society.
After a 1926 coup, the Portuguese began scrambling for yet another change. The First Republic would be replaced with a new state, the Estado Novo.
Its leader for many years, Antonio Salazar, worked initially as finance minister, and, miraculously by today’s standards, “the Portuguese budget went from insolvency to showing a substantial surplus every year from 1928. Portugal’s credit worthiness rose in foreign markets and the external floating debt was completely paid.”
After acquiring a reputation for honest service, he was eventually appointed prime minister. In this role, he undertook diverse efforts to prevent Portugal’s descent into anarchy and political extremism. The Estado Novo program did not aim to remake society, so much as to preserve it.
While the Left defined its enemies broadly—the Church, the wealthy, the family—the Salazar regime, like its neighbor in Spain, chiefly directed its intelligence apparatus at rooting out subversive elements, such as the Moscow-controlled Communists. At the same time, the government also devoted some of its energies to curbing the National Syndicalist movement, which was aligned with the German Nazi Party.
Far from being an affront to liberty, these were necessary steps to preserve the economic freedom, national sovereignty, and family life on which a civilization depends. The recent past, as well as the Soviet Union’s descent into hell, provided ample warning about the dangers of tolerating the extreme Left, just as the crimes of the Hitler regime provided a similar warning about the extreme Right.
The Estado Novo, was not merely reactive, but aimed to create a new order, which balanced the competing sectors of society to avoid ruinous class and social warfare, a particular threat during the Great Depression. The Estado Novo’s corporatist ideology was inspired by emerging Catholic social thought and aimed to reconcile Portugal’s competing social categories with the centrifugal forces of the modern world.
Under this system, Salazar’s Portugal reined in the power of the increasingly dominant international finance sector and prevented Portugal’s subordination to foreign creditors. Moreover, Portugal maintained its independence and neutrality even under the immense pressures of both the Allies and the Axis during the Second World War.
With its political police, censorship, and restrictions on political parties, the Salazar regime was undoubtedly authoritarian. But the weight of that authority was far less intrusive and far less damaging to society than the alternative. It was not a revolutionary system with a revolutionary agenda, but a conservative effort, aimed at the prosaic goals of prosperity, order, and normalcy. Salazar’s rejection of a cult of personality and personal asceticism did much to limit what is otherwise a high-risk form of government.
Even when the Estado Novo was undone during the 1974 Carnation Revolution, the society that emerged was wealthier, more at peace with itself, and less open to the political radicalism and experimentation that nearly destroyed Portugal during the years of the First Republic from 1910-1926.
(In light of the American military’s recent flirtation with left-wing indoctrination, it is noteworthy that the 1974 coup was led by career military officers in the left-oriented Armed Forces Movement.)
Lessons for the American Right
Portugal’s Estado Novo provides several important lessons for the American Right.
First, the Portuguese Right did not try to win a rigged game. So long as the structures of the revolutionary First Republic remained, there was no hope for a conservative renaissance. The system had to be replaced.
The same may be said of the managerial system that has consolidated power in the United States since the social revolution of the 1960s. As the Trump presidency should have made clear, even electoral success will not be able to change this regime’s trajectory without more systemic reform.
Second, the Estado Novo and its supporters did not treat its enemies with kid gloves. They were not limited by self-defeating notions of “principle.” Hostile and revolutionary elements—whether domestic Communists, fascist syndicalists, internal political factions, or international high finance—were treated as equal potential dangers. The common good and the survival and flourishing of the nation were the lodestars of the government.
Finally, many Catholics in Portugal—especially the property-owning farmers and small businessmen, as well as the tradition-minded rural poor—could have shrugged at the revolutionary change, hoping they would be spared and permitted to live their lives as they saw fit. But their enemies did not give them that option. Those same enemies will not give us that option.
A Benedict Option may work in the nonideological, semi-anarchy of the decaying Roman Empire. It will not work in the shadow of revolutionary leftism, which spared no one where it was dominant in the 20th century. The same aggressive designs will likely color the 21st-century politics of the United States.
To survive, we need to be committed to acquiring and using power in the service of a counterrevolution.