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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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240 occurrences of e
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II. NONIDEOLOGICAL CONSERVATISM

At all times and in all societies there are people—not
only those who belong to the “establishment”—who
desire the continuance of the value systems and milieu
in which they have grown up or to which they have
risen. Just to the extent that they fear departure from
the familiar and prefer the certainty of the known to
the risk of innovation, the traditional way of life will
seem binding and sacrosanct to them, and imperiling
it blasphemous. Much more so than those who see
themselves as liberals, democrats, progressives, or so-
cialists, and who have more or less conscious notions
of what ought to be, conservatives perceive (and con-
duct) themselves within the framework of traditional
value systems and models of behavior which are taken
for granted rather than thought about; the ideological
character of this is usually denied. Indeed, in the con-
servative's ideology and outlook on life there is hardly
any distinction in the natures of religion, ethics, every-
day morality, philosophy, politics, and understanding
of the contemporary age. There is, instead, a reliance
upon the individual and collective experience of living
due to the superiority of age; upon historical develop-
ment understood by analogy to the process of biologi-
cal growth; upon an order that is not intellectually
postulated but is imposed by nature, and upon the
authority of persons and institutions whose legitimacy
is considered to be self-evident rather than calling for
critical examination. A conservative mentality is some-
how a “natural” phenomenon, above all in established
social groups: among the representatives and officials
of traditional institutions as well as among the locally
and professionally relatively stable portions of society
(farmers, craftsmen). It also develops when upward
social mobility has proved successful or when there
is a readiness, following initial opposition, to identify
oneself with the status claims and experience of family,
occupation, or social group.

The criteria of value and taste corresponding to this
mentality rely on preconceived judgments, on the
“tried and true,” and eo ipso a higher status is given
to the “eternal” values that are assumed to be inde-
pendent of ephemeral fads and fashions. Intellectuality,
rationalism, and criticism are indeed rejected as
abstractions, but so are their opposites: extravagance
of feeling; ecstatic self-abandon, and mystical with-
drawal. In contrast to these the conservative mentality
claims to be realistic and “practical,” yet orients itself
mostly by a pristine model that is thought to be perfect.
Its reaction to the present is thus often defensive or
selective, rejecting certain tendencies as destructive
and affirming others as constructive and sound.

This “traditionalist” mentality remains latent so long
as it is not provoked by encountering change or by
an attack on vested rights and interests. When it is
given expression, conservatism is thus almost always
resistant and liable to react.

From this mentality forms of social behavior result
that are determined by a sense of family, local and
social stability, and the recognition of intrasocietal
distinctions. The circle of marriages is kept relatively
small, differences of faith and education are rarely
overlooked, local usage and established class morals are
heeded, and much is made of the authority of parents
and the teacher's right to correct. Family and regional
groups organized along corporative (ständisch) lines
constitute the inner framework of conservative social
conduct, so that individualism is as suspect as egalitar-
ian collectivism; the concept of universal freedom is
as incomprehensible as the concept of universal equal-
ity. The Church and its behests are approved and
defended as social forces or factors; the standards of
conduct and morality of earlier generations still possess
the binding force of law. Social origin is assigned higher
prestige than earned status; inherited property is more
highly valued than acquired possessions; congenital
qualities are given greater weight than those condi-
tioned by and acquired in the environment. Con-
servative social conduct functions within the structure
of a preconceived class and hierarchical order encom-
passing the whole of society, within which each man
has his recognized station, and is protected in it by
valid rights and by higher authority legitimized by its
office (not democratically or by popular vote).

When placed on the defensive, conservative social
action can easily turn into ideology and thereby
achieve a consciously stylized veneration of past order
in opposition to the present-day “fragmentation” and
“destruction” of society. Aspects of this kind of attitude
are still to be found everywhere even in contemporary
egalitarian societies.

In its economic thought and action the conservative
mentality is expressed in its attachment to traditional
modes of labor and consumption, in its reluctant
acceptance and almost rejection of industrialization


479

and capitalistic competition, and in its inclination to-
ward paternalism in business methods. The farmer,
artisan, merchant are taken to be the basic types of
working man; their attitude toward work (Arbeitsethos)
is frequently preserved even in industrial society and
is often idealized. If, as a result of changes in the
economic structure and rationalization of production
methods, certain branches of the economy are forced
on the defensive, antimodernistic feelings often arise,
including demands for a protectionist economic policy
in which the interests of a specific group are blandly
presented as being for the universal good; their preser-
vation is justified not only for economic reasons but
also for the well-being of society.

The conservative mentality does not distinguish be-
tween society and state, morality and politics. Society
is controlled by vested rights and a leadership that is
legitimized by religion, myth, and seniority: a reflec-
tion of what is assumed to be a universally valid divine
and natural order. Within this order the claim to privi-
lege has a role just as does the pursuit of simple self-
interest to the extent that it can advance itself as the
exercise of some “legitimately acquired” right. Naive
political conservatism represents its notions of order
as self-evident or obviously derived from nature and
history. It rejects as impudent and utopian the belief
in the possibility of a rational structuring of social and
political conditions in order to achieve their conscious
amelioration; generally it does not prohibit reforms,
but remains convinced of the fundamental imperfec-
tion of man and of natural differences among their
rights and duties, and therewith of the necessity of the
leadership of the many by the few. It instinctively
rejects not only the principle of democratic majority
rule but also that of intellectual and bureaucratic elites.
Leadership should be personally manifested; not how-
ever in the hands of one individual, but entrusted to
the sounder part (sanior pars) of society; in practice,
therefore, to a class accustomed to and experienced
in leadership. The rulers are obliged to intervene to
direct and order the lives of those classes not yet pos-
sessing discretion. The main task of legislature and
judiciary is taken to be the safeguarding of vested
interests; this, of course, applies to all, but in fact
benefits the possessors, excluding the have-nots and
making them the object of charity.