Twenty-five years ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn delievered his landmark commencement speech at Harvard, “A World Split Apart.” In what was one of the 20th century’s most famous and poignant commencement addresses, Solzhenitsyn offers a reminder to conservatives of just what it is that they seek to conserve.

Later released as a book and commented upon in numerous newspaper columns and magazine articles, it was considered by many observers at the time an indictment of not just the Evil Empire, but Western culture. But it is better to view “A World Split Apart” as a warning to the West to avoid the excesses of unfettered freedom and the dangerous allures of irreligion.

In his address, Solzhenitsyn warned against the effects of a society intoxicated by mass-mediated culture, by dependency on legalistic conceptions of the permissible and impermissible as opposed to what is right and wrong, and the abandonment of religious tradition and the moral life.

Too many conservatives have long stopped thinking about political questions as moral issues. They are left debating public policy on liberal assumptions and offering no more to the electorate than that they will administer existing programs better than the party in power.

But conservatism is more than reducing the size of government and promising to be a better caretaker of the healthcare system.

Canadian Alliance leader Stephen Harper recently said in a speech reprinted in the Citizen’s Centre Report that conservatives cannot hope to defeat the governing Liberals solely through economic arguments. He urged conservatives to challenge the government’s social policy agenda. Some social and moral conservatives may not think Harper goes far enough in challenging not just the Liberal party but the liberal zeitgeist. Although many social conservatives will question whether Harper is going far enough – he says that the political right must choose its issues carefully, by which he means that the word abortion is not to be uttered – what is notable is that he is doing anything at all.

Harper urged conservatives to challenge the predominant cultural relativism – or even worse, the “moral nihilism” – of the age. Harper said the modern left rejects “any tradition or convention of morality.” But there are limits to what Harper or any political leader can do; if conservatives want to succeed, they cannot expect Canadians to hop aboard a political party discussing the unpleasant topics that addressing the cultural decadence requires. Conservatives must do the hard work at the ground level and change the culture.

Part of the problem in Canada is that while there are two ostensibly conservative parties, there is no discernable conservative movement. There is no Canadian National Review or American Enterprise Institute. The conservative publications and think tanks that we do have are regional or too specialized, often focussing on economic issues (the Citizen’s Centre or the Fraser Institute, for example). With the exception of a handful of commentators and academics, conservatism in Canada offers little more than arguments for tax cuts and free trade. Where, today, could Solzhenitsyn go in Canada to deliver this message?

Statecraft is soulcraft, but conservative spokesman offer nothing more than public policies with no greater goal than putting more money in the pockets of Canadians, which can be spent on an ever-greater plethora of consumer goods. Solzhenitsyn warned that personal freedom that unleashes violence and pornography and unlimited appetites undermines institutions such as the family, home, school and the community in a way that enslaves the human soul. Such freedom makes us less free, slaves to our own greed and public opinion, and subordinates humans to their basest instincts.

Washington Post columnist George F. Will recognized at the time that the commencement address put the Russian giant in a long line of Western thinkers who were anything but modern – Cicero, Augustine and Edmund Burke – and thus challenged the modern “flaccid consensus.” Conservatives are prophets and intelligent, sober critics because they look at the future and present while standing on top of the shoulders of such giants.

Conservatism that does not respect tradition and defend our cultural patrimony is not worthy of the label conservative. Solzhenitsyn warned that Western traditions were under assault by a toxic media, undemocratic institutions, a reliance on legalisms over morality and the placement of each individual person at the centre of his own universe.

The West, Solzhenitsyn diagnosed, was spiritually exhausted. If anything, it is getting worse. (The latest Statistics Canada report on religion found that the number of Canadians who list themselves as “no religion” increased 16 per cent in the last decade, and many of those who do profess to believe would not pass the test of proving that they indeed respect their respective creeds.)

Solzhenitsyn told the graduating class in 1978 – and the cultural elite throughout the West, many of whom take their intellectual cues from Harvard – that “truth is seldom sweet; it is almost invariably bitter.” But, Solzhenitsyn added, he offered his critique of late 20th century culture “as a friend, not as an adversary”; his words are meant not simply to scathe us for our faults, but to stir us to do better

The purpose of conservatism at the beginning of the 21st century, indeed at any time, is to sustain the critique of the current by the standards of the ideal; to call man from the slouch of a merely material existence, to the freedom (and responsibility) his dignigty demands. It may not be popular, but it is urgently needed.