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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
[Clear Hits]

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.