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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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III. CONSERVATISM AS A
POLITICAL IDEA AND IDEOLOGY

1. Prerevolutionary Conservatism. In prerevolu-
tionary, pre-industrial, and corporatively (ständisch)
structured society a conservative social and political
mentality was normal. It rested on the assumption that
law is not made but discovered, and rulership is not
legitimized by the consent of the governed, but by
divine law. Changes in law, religion, and societal
structure were therefore sternly rejected; their protag-
onists were found guilty of heresy, disturbance of the
“natural” order, and lèse-majesté by the established
powers. Conservative mentality is manifested, for ex-
ample, in Cicero's standardizing of the old consti-
tutional res publica and in the idealizing of the old
Roman way of life by Roman historians, as well as
generally in the exemplary lessons taught by history
(historia magistra vitae).

It was on the basis of the same views, however, that
reformers and rebels—among them Tiberius Gracchus,
Cola di Rienzo, John Wycliffe, and the leaders of the
German Peasant War—understood and justified their
objectives as restoration (renovatio, restauratio, refor-
matio,
Renaissance). Leopold von Ranke called Luther
“one of the greatest conservatives who ever lived.” The
Glorious Revolution of 1688 was interpreted as the
restoration of the traditional constitution proper to
England. Only after “revolution” was understood as
a deliberate total change in accordance with norms
of universally valid rational and natural rights, as the
elimination of abuse, and as a means of emerging from
self-imposed infancy, could it no longer be represented
as restoration. Instead, restoration became a conscious
attempt to reverse revolutionary change, and con-
servatism became conscious opposition to revolu-
tionary tendencies.

The change from a mood of predominant “stand-
pattism” to one of reactionary opposition and of active
defense of positions under attack, from habitual to
conscious traditionalism, was not merely a consequence
of political revolutions, but arose in opposition to
criticism of and changes in the predominant mood, e.g.,
the Sophistic accusations against the Greek polis, the
changed attitudes toward the ecclesiastical reforma-
tions of the sixteenth century, and also towards the
Enlightenment.

The earliest translation of the antagonism between
the defenders of the traditional social and ecclesiastical
order and their adversaries into a party system of
political conflict took place in England during the
seventeenth century; it influenced the whole political
thinking of Europe and North America. In England,
the influence was due to political institutions (Parlia-
ment, State Church, common law) and societal factors
(an aristocracy far from immune to panic, an ascending
gentry, and an economically powerful bourgeoisie in
London). Also the wide range of political positions,
from the patriarchalism of Filmer via Hobbes, Hooker,
Locke, and Milton to the radicalism of Winstanley,
articulated during the fights between partisans of Stuart
absolutism (closely connected with the Church of


480

England) and Puritan-Independent opponents in the
English Parliament, which lasted for decades, gave the
necessary impetus. The same basic political and ideo-
logical assumptions still shaped the fundamental prin-
ciples of those Parliamentary groups which were called
by their nicknames “Tories” and “Whigs” around 1679,
though these parties gradually became guided by po-
litical conceptions during the eighteenth century.

The beginnings and core of the traditionalist defense
and the formulation of a conservative position consisted
in rejecting criticism of dogma, of the authority of
ecclesiastical teachings, and of their influence in the
realm of secular education which became increasingly
independent. With the extension of this criticism to
the whole hierarchical and aristocratic culture of the
seventeenth century and to the traditional corporative
and regional institutions of Europe, conservatism
developed into a general social and political viewpoint
opposed to the contract theory on which monarchy
depended to support its centralizing administrative
tendencies. The Enlightenment critics, the reform
policies of progressive governments, and above all the
French Revolution were the factors that led con-
servatism out of mere traditionalism and made it a
political ideology. It did not, however, result in
the dissolution of “pre-ideological” traditionalism.

Conservatism never attained the systematic unity
and orthodoxy of Jacobinism, or of democratic radical-
ism, nor even that of liberalism. Down to the 1960's
it remains an assortment of political ideas, a political
credo that is more clearly delimited by what it rejects
than by any positive program. The latter substantially
depends on the degree of challenge at any given time.
Thus conservatism is conceived of as antirevolutionary
thought (Burke), as a counterrevolutionary appeal (de
Maistre), as a “conservative revolution” (Hofmanns-
thal). Even when it supposes itself anti-ideological,
this misunderstanding itself displays ideological traits.
In an “age of ideology” conservatism has also not been
able to escape ideological alignments; conservative
ideologies, however, remain relatively unarticulated in
any systematic theories; among the important repre-
sentatives of political conservatism, then, are a large
number of practical statesmen, while only a few can
be named whose influence has been exclusively through
their writings.

2. Antirevolutionary Conservatism. An antirevolu-
tionary policy has by no means always been the aim
of conservative political principles; in the vast majority
of cases the objective of such a policy was rather a
suppression of forces which, in the judgment of the
rulers, threatened the existing order. The instruments
used were (and are) press censorship, repressive laws
governing association and assembly, and police regula
tions, but also school instruction, church sermons, and
direct propaganda. Such a policy could always rely
on the approval of those who view order, security, and
a strong authority as the highest political values, even
if this authority—by strictly conservative standards—is
of dubious legitimacy. In fact, however, political con-
servatism has with increasing frequency since the
eighteenth century found itself in a position where it
could not rely on established authority—not only in
those cases where it was put into power by the majority
will of the sovereign people, but even under absolute
monarchy—because that authority itself brought about
changes in traditional social conditions and political
institutions (“revolution from above,” as expounded,
for example, by Joseph II). With this weakening of the
traditionalist components in conservatism naive sup-
port for traditional authority felt uncertain, and not
infrequently released an unrealistic desire for restora-
tion of that authority after it had been removed by
revolutionary activity, thereby transforming in a
democratic age the guiding image of monarchy into
a version of the state as authoritarian, bonapartistic,
presidential (when oriented toward a strong executive;
präsidial demokratisch), or totalitarian.

Practical conservative politics, whether pursued by
governments or by political groups and parties showed
itself—simply because of its scarcely fixed ideological
basis—to be extraordinarily adaptable. Only rarely
(Metternich!) did conservatives understand their posi-
tion by reference to abstract principle; in general they
can be characterized as pursuing a policy along certain
conservative guidelines in the interest of preserving the
influence of the ruling classes who assumed their social
and political position to be necessary for the function-
ing of their respective countries (Bismarck, Disraeli).
It is on the basis of such an identification of group
and state interests that conservative parties, above all
rural interests, have ruthlessly pursued partisan politics.

It is difficult to trace the development of new ideas
in the antirevolutionary politics of conservative gov-
ernments, groups, and parties beyond adapting them-
selves to changing conditions in society. Conservative
political philosophy in essence expresses uneasiness,
and describes what is in principle a stable model of
society that, without excluding change, permits
changes only within the historical continuity of an
order determined by the social nature of man. The
conservative has always held firmly to this model in
response to the challenge of social change and pro-
gressive political ideologies. Thus the speed and direc-
tion of the development of conservative ideas have
been substantially determined by those forces that
seemed to jeopardize this continuity. The only ones
who moved away from a defensive position have been


481

the romantic conservatives (A. Müller), the nationalistic
conservatives of Action Française (Maurras), and the
German neo-conservatives of the Weimar republic. But
even here the positive values whose validity is claimed
are at the same time negations of those principles
which constitute the rationale of modern social philos-
ophy and political thought; even so, as negations they
are themselves rationalizations of mere traditionalism
and of the naive conservative mentality.

Moreover, conservatism has not been able to isolate
itself from the enlightened liberal ideas that dominated
the political consciousness of the nineteenth century.
The general feeling of progress and the power of the
trend toward emancipation and egalitarianism were
too strong for conservatism not to be drawn into their
wake. On the other hand, an increasing number of
liberals delimited the boundaries of progressivism be-
cause of the growing pressure of egalitarian democracy,
and increasingly drew back from the ideas of bourgeois
or social democracy. Thus an area of political thought
was marked off in which conservative and liberal ideas
drew so close as to be almost indistinguishable, above
all in their joint approval of historical continuity, “or-
ganic” development, and “moderate” progress, in the
rejection of revolutionary overthrow, in the recognition
of the state as embodying the power to impose order
on all classes and parties, and of the security of law
and property as the foundation of society. Most politi-
cal thinkers around the middle of the nineteenth cen-
tury were active in this area: A. de Tocqueville, Robert
Peel, F. J. Stahl, among them. Not until the late nine-
teenth century was there a shift; beginning with criti-
cism of culture (Kulturkritik) and continuing in youth
movements and the formation of elitist groups, political
philosophies with antibourgeois and antiliberal as well
as antidemocratic, antisocialistic, and anti-egalitarian
viewpoints deliberately inscribed rejections of the
nineteenth century on their banners, and after World
War I coalesced into an ideologically authoritarian
neo-conservatism.