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Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Remnant: An Alternative to “Movements”

How radical philosophies can live up to their ideals

This is part II of a series examining how radical philosophies can effect social change. Part I, “Do Movements Matter?“, explores the ways in which movements fall short of the radical ideals that inspired them. Part III, “How a Fringe of Freedom-Lovers Can Change the World“, will explore some ways in which a small Remnant can change the world.

The Remnant as a Solution to Diluted Ideas

There is a possible solution to the eventual watering-down of radical ideas, but it requires a shift of vision from emphasizing social movements’ “organize to win” mindset and to one that understands the importance of preserving foundational values. What is needed is a group fiercely devoted to the radical ideas that would otherwise be the foundations for an organized movement.

What differentiates this kind of group is that it is not driven by a desire to organize and popularize; rather, it is motivated by the study of these radical foundations.

Albert J. Nock presented this concept as a modern adaptation of its biblical roots in his essay “Isaiah’s Job”:

The line of differentiation between the masses and the Remnant is set invariably by quality, not by circumstance. The Remnant are those who by force of intellect are able to apprehend these principles, and by force of character are able, at least measurably, to cleave to them. The masses are those who are unable to do either.

In brief, the Remnant is a small subset of people who not only profess to understand and adhere to a set of beliefs and values, but who are also willing to stand by them and “cleave to them” in the face of challenge and unpopularity. By the nature of a radical set of beliefs, the Remnant is going to be a very small group of people who are unlikely to gain popular support.

Nock goes as far as to say that the Remnant is not a group of people you can go find and make popular through marketing. Rather, they exist, they are out there, and the person who holds steadfastly in their beliefs will naturally attract them:

In any given society the Remnant are always so largely an unknown quantity. You do not know, and will never know, more than two things about them. . . . You do not know, and will never know, who the Remnant are, nor what they are doing or will do.

Two things you do know, and no more: First, that they exist; second, that they will find you. Except for these two certainties, working for the Remnant means working in impenetrable darkness; and this, I should say, is just the condition calculated most effectively to pique the interest of any prophet who is properly gifted with the imagination, insight and intellectual curiosity necessary to a successful pursuit of his trade.

What a Remnant offers is not the same as what a movement offers. Movements organize to gain popularity, to market, to elect leaders, to drive their ideas into the mainstream. Remnants exist to protect and develop important ideas. The two perspectives are not only different but also, to the extent a movement makes progress, end up being diametrically opposed.

As a movement gains in popularity, it will be forced to either dilute the values and foundational premises from which it operates in order to keep growing, or pass up on the opportunity for growth.

A Remnant faces no such dilemma. Its followers and proponents are not organized (at least not actively or explicitly). The dilemma never crosses their minds; they don’t operate on that wavelength.

This difference in purpose is of the utmost importance. Movements cannot incorporate Remnants after they have organized, or else the movement and the Remnant will be at odds.

Remnants exist separately from their parallel movements, even though the some members could overlap between them. Although the two groups may be organized around the same principles, they cannot be the same thing because they have distinct purposes.

Remnants Defend the Undefendable

When the going gets tough and the premises of radicalism come under fire, movements may be tempted to moderate their stances in order to maintain growth and mass appeal.

At best, a sort of party-line develops and individuals within the movement adopt a compromise stance among themselves.

At worst, the challenges to the foundational premises cause disagreements within the movement and it begins to splinter. Everybody believes they are right, and that they are the true proponents of “the proper stance for an X to hold.”

As “infighting” among members of the movement continues, the foundational principles begin to lose their significance. The more moderate stances are more likely to win out, taking power and significance from the radicalism that underlie the movement.

This is where a Remnant is of utmost importance. It is the job of the Remnant to stand by, support, and develop foundational principles both when it is easy and when it is incredibly difficult. Many can claim to support a radical idea when it isn’t under intense public scrutiny and when those who support it are not being accused of evil intentions. But fewer people can steadfastly stand behind these principles when they are intensely unpopular, even from those who otherwise support them.

To use a historical example, the American Old Right stood as the sole defenders of liberalism in a time when fascism, Nazism, communism, and progressivism were taking over the world and stamping out the idea of individualism and individual rights.

A handful of people (such as Albert Nock, Frank Chodorov, H.L. Mencken, Isabel Patterson, and others) stood against the cries of illiberalism in the United States in a time when fascism was on the march, communism was ascendant, and the Roosevelt administration was nationalizing anything that moved.

Had this group not stood against the grain and preserved the ideas of a radical tradition, the ideas of liberalism would be considerably weaker than they are today. The Mont Pelerin Society developed as a home for these ideas in the West during the post-war period, while liberalism all but died behind the Iron Curtain.

It is the job of the Remnant to defend the undefendable from (what seems to be) the inevitable. This works to remind those who identify with the tradition what their principles really are and to attract fellow members of the Remnant at large. If nothing else, they will preserve the ideas and traditions which may otherwise be lost to populism.

Can A Remnant Change The World?

Unlike mass movements, Remnants do not exist for the purpose of recruiting, marketing, and gaining large numbers of followers. They are the propagators of radical ideas and the guardians of endangered values. By forgoing populism, it seems that they are declawed in the battle for mass change, but this appearance is mistaken.

  • Zak Slayback is a venture capital and private equity professional and a small business owner. He is the author of How to Get Ahead (McGraw-Hill, 2019) and wrote the foreword to John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down (New Society Publishers, 2017). He lives in the United States and writes at He is a Eugene S. Thorpe Fellow and FEE alum.