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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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1. Edmund Burke and Anglo-Saxon Conservatism.
Despite the relatively substantial unity and stability
of its central values, conservatism displays a variety
of nuances based on the different social experiences
of its partisans at different times and in different coun-
tries. This was already apparent in the reaction to the
democratic revolution of the late eighteenth century.
Edmund Burke, who, as a critic of the French Revolu-
tion, gave the first (and to date most important) formu-
lation of conservative political philosophy, vehemently
rejected abstract political theories and efforts to found
a constitution on them, because he esteemed as higher
than the rationality of philosophers the reason that
formed social and political institutions in accordance
with natural and divine laws operating in the historical
process. It is not the task of men to impose an order
on things, but to recognize the order implicit in them
and to act accordingly. With his practical political
sense and philosophical inclination to identify nature
and history Burke had too much respect for the tradi-
tional social order to be willing to cede its fate to the
ratio and the deliberate plans of contemporary authors,
and he was too skeptical a judge of men to have confi-
dence in their original goodness (Rousseau) or in their
rational foresight. He approved reforms, but rejected
revolution because it destroyed tradition and continu-
ity. He relied too heavily, moreover, on the foundations
of a functioning English constitution to be able to
understand the revolutionary challenge to conditions
that had arisen historically in other countries.

Burke's ideas were of particular importance to
European and American conservatism: he assigned
priority to the historical accomplishments of genera-
tions rather than to the plans of individuals and the
revolutionary acts of the masses; he did not acknowl-
edge the separation of nature and history; he legiti-
mized feeling and tradition as forces shaping the pres-
ent, taking religion to be the “foundation of civil
society,” and provided an arsenal of arguments against
revolution that appeared to have the weight of histori-
cal experience on their side.

2. Restorationist Conservatism. Burke's Reflections
on the Revolution in France
rapidly found an echo in
Germany, where reception was prepared by the his-
toricist opposition to radical enlightenment—above all
in J. Möser, E. Brandes, A. W. Rehberg, and Friedrich
Gentz. Though at first stamped by the Enlightenment,
all of these found in Burke that mixture of political
experience with concrete reflection, of assured con-
sciousness of freedom with a skeptical attitude toward
innovation and emancipation that could not have arisen
independently under German conditions. Their rejec-
tion of revolution was not directed against Jacobin
horrors alone. Because they recognized that it was no
longer merely a question of a “change of regime” in
the old manner, but of a “total revolution” (Gentz),
even though executed by a part of the nation only,
they denounced revolution as a “breach of the social
contract” hostile to every order in society and therefore
as an “amoral operation” (Gentz). To the claim of
revolution to reconstitute society they opposed an
equally comprehensive denunciation of revolution as
a breach of law and as destructive of the foundations
of the order of European society and state, but did


not yet present any antirevolutionary counter-ideol-
ogy, nor any program of restoration.

The former appeared in French aristocratic Catholic
émigré circles from the pens of J. M., Comte de Maistre
and L. G. A. de Bonald. They were consciously opposed
to liberal enlightened thought, considered revolution
as simply evil, and favored instead a retroactively
purified “order” that was traditional, hierarchical, and
springing directly from the will of the Creator; against
revolutionary changes they offered the wisdom of his-
tory as the instructress of politics. A state could not
be organized in accordance with rational constitutional
principles: its form must derive from the history of
a people, and the sovereign power that constitutes it
originates in God, and so obtains its legitimacy. Written
statutes are only the formulation of the unwritten,
eternally valid laws; only those institutions can endure
that are founded on religious conceptions. For de
Maistre individual reason is presumption condemned
to error, and philosophy is a destructive force. Since
monarchy is for him the traditional ordering power
and almost “natural,” he wants it to be restored; not
indeed in its absolute form, but in a patriarchal and
decentralized manner commanding a society divided
into corporations (Stände) and in the closest relation
to the Catholic Church as the universal force for tradi-
tion and order. By setting the Church over the state,
and the Pope over kings, de Maistre made them the
most powerful instruments of counterrevolution and
restoration, a barrier to enlightenment and individ-
ualism, and the prop of monarchy and corporative

Even more clearly than de Maistre, de Bonald
emphasized the view that only in society is human
nature truly realized; he thereby gave expression to
those anti-individualistic features of conservatism that
enabled it to recognize the social problems of an
industrial society in process of development and so to
advance the social science. Bonald also formulated
most clearly the differences between the individualistic
and abstract versions of a republic (that could not
achieve any important social objective) and a real
“social” monarchy; his criticism became focal in con-
servative argumentation. Like de Maistre he sought
restoration, but was not content with simply denounc-
ing revolution; rather he presupposed its existence in
order to derive from its abstract principles the con-
creteness of restorationist politics. The content and
style of his thought later influenced the Action

In central Europe restorationist conservatism found
its most acute proponent in the Swiss, K. L. von Haller,
who saw patriarchal leadership, the prerogative of civil
law, and the corporate patrimonial state as “natural”
institutions; on the other hand, he viewed the entire
development of the modern state as a path of error,
and so won the approval of the Prussian conservatives
close to Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Western and middle
European restorationist conservatism found an echo in
Russia and—together with ideas of mysticism, quietism,
and romanticism—influenced Tsar Alexander I; the
Holy Alliance, which was initiated by him and repre-
sented an antirevolutionary program, aimed at stability
and was based upon the assumption of the solidarity
of all Christian sovereigns and people.

3. Romantic Conservatism. While romantic con-
servatism in Germany was in practice drawn into res-
torationist politics, its ideas and intentions, however,
were developed in dialectical opposition to enlighten-
ment theories of the state and society as founded on
rational laws, and in opposition to the politics of
enlightened despotism. These theories and politics, and
not primarily the revolution, were made responsible
for the abandonment of the beautiful hierarchical order
(family, corporate state, monarchy, church) that had
been formed in the Middle Ages. The road to revolu-
tion had followed an inevitable path from the Refor-
mation to rationalism and individualism, to adminis-
trative centralism and to the decline of corporative
prerogatives. Rather than regard the revolution merely
as a misfortune romantic conservatives understood
revolution to mean that a soulless, nonreligious state
and the presumptuous attempt to reconstruct it on
substantially rational principles were doomed to
failure. In opposition to this, they relied upon the old
order and envisioned the better future of an idealized
and harmonious Christian state (Novalis, A. Müller,
F. von Baader). Since the evil reality of the present was
viewed as a nonessential phenomenon the only escape
was seen in the aesthetic reconciliation of opposites.
Romantic conservative political thought in Germany
was closely intertwined with historicism, with Schel-
ling's philosophy of identity, and with the nationalist
movement. The preference for vested rights over
consciously sought “progress” and the conviction that
every people must proceed along the lines of its own
unique organic development, jointly produced in the
educated classes a growing tendency to political con-
servatism. This attitude also penetrated the ranks of
moderate liberalism in its increasing concern about
radical and social democracy.

It was the reception of German romantic thought
and its insistence upon history and Volk that formed
the conservative component in the growing nationalism
among the mainly democratic, educated classes of
Eastern Europe. “The Society of Friends of Wisdom”
(liubomudry, 1823) with its romantic-conservative
nationalism and the circle surrounding N. V. Stankević


were also shaped by ideas originating in Germany; both
Muscovite groups were—despite a rather short exist-
ence—forerunners of the accentuated Russian nation-
alism during the second half of the nineteenth century.

4. Neo-conservatism. Since the late nineteenth cen-
tury conservatism has in different ways moved away
from being defensive as a result of the influence of
industrialization and capitalism, of growing social
mobility, of advances in scientific and technological
thought, the liberalization of state and economy, and
the secularization of thought and public life. Even then
it has been easier for conservatives to determine what
it is they are opposing than to design clear and realistic
programs. The criticisms of civilization by Nietzsche,
Renan, Taine, Dostoevski, and J. Burkhardt, among
others, hardly fall under the rubric “conservative”;
nonetheless they have furnished the political con-
servative with both a basic philosophy of civilization
and a wide audience. The conservative “intellectual”
has come forward to express the discontent felt for both
the world of bourgeois capitalism and the programs
of socialism; in his formulating new myths, forecasts,
and schemes a skeptical, sometimes even nihilistic,
accent has not been lacking. Appearing increasingly
less aristocratic or class-oriented than intellectual and
elitist, this type of conservative has attained his most
widespread influence in conjunction with militant and
integrative nationalism.

The best known phenomenon of this type was the
Action Française, whose protagonists, Maurice Barrès
and Charles Maurras, saw nationality as the inalienable
distinction of man. Combining antisecular and anti-
Semitic tendencies with ideas derived from Sorel they
promoted an authoritarian conception of the state
without undue scruples as to its legitimacy. Maurras
demanded the establishment of an hereditary anti-
parliamentary monarchy, hierarchically structured and
corporatively organized, among whose firmest sup-
porters should be the Catholic Church.

In Germany before World War I conservatism of
this type was the program of small and isolated, though
influential, groups. P. de Lagarde, with some bearing
on romanticism, had demanded a state adequate to the
character of the German people as well as a “German”
religion, and based his hopes on a new elitist brand
of education. J. Langbehn adopted this approach and
developed it, amplifying its antimodernistic tenden-
cies: homeland, Volk, nature, and art constitute a
powerfully emotional ideological syndrome in Lang-
behn that had its effect on the youth movement.

This neo-conservatism was no longer “restora-
tionist”; it sought not to preserve the existent, but to
eliminate what had come to be; not to restore some
medieval order, but to make room for a post-bourgeois,
post-capitalistic world. Its derivative conceptions of
social order were by no means uniform; but there was
substantial agreement among neo-conservatives to the
extent that they were antiliberal, antidemocratic, and
antisocialistic. The Volk must be ranked above the
state, the nation above mankind, community above
individual and society. The social organization of the
Volk was conceived along occupational lines, the ad-
ministration of the state as authoritarian: Kultur rooted
in the soil was to be cultivated above cosmopolitan

Neo-conservatism of this kind had its day on the
continent of Europe especially after World War I. It
was able to represent itself as a new national socialism
(solidarity) and was used as the official ideology of
national movements and national dictatorships, so that
it sometimes came very close to fascism. One must,
however, carefully distinguish between the “right” and
fascism. The incorporation of elements of conservative
thought in the wake of fascist movements and systems
has been so damaging for the former that it is only
with the greatest difficulty that a program of inde-
pendent political conservatism can be formulated.

5. Conservatism in the United States. The position
occupied by conservatives among the political view-
points in any given country depends upon the political
and social conditions obtaining in it. The attitudes and
goals called “conservative” in the United States
appeared to European eyes to be mostly rather
“Whiggish.” Until the 1960's it seemed even less easy
in the United States to find a powerful national “right
wing” of antirevolutionaries, restorationist legitimists,
supporters of romantic and organic social doctrines,
and antidemocrats than to find a precise counterpart
of European liberalism. A radical left wing, on the
other hand, has been almost nonexistent. Such facts
made the dominant American credo look rather mod-
erate; it may among other things be traced back to
the working of its democratic machinery and to its
antifeudal past, though its revolutionary break with
feudal Europe was in a way justified by a restoration
of colonial rights.

Despite that and despite the influence of Locke on
American political thinking, political conservatism was
manifested at the inception of the Union by the fathers
of the Constitution. Their concern was for order and
security to be attained by limiting the radical demo-
cratic tendencies found in the separate states, and
thereby to strengthen the authority of the new federa-
tion. Suspected during the conflicts with the South
from Calhoun to Little Rock, the defense of states
rights—formerly the official position of radicals and
liberals alike (Bill of Rights, Tenth Amendment), and
adapted by Jefferson to the necessities of an expanding


“empire”—was considered in the 1960's as con-
servative a policy as the insistence on laissez-faire
economics. Once stock-in-trade of American capital-
istic democracy it became the main argument of con-
servatives in the twenties (Herbert Hoover) against the
modern welfare state.

A similar ambiguous attitude was displayed by the
West. At first often expressing its outrage at economic
and political supremacy of the East in terms of a
radical and even egalitarian democracy, the rural West
at the same time, and increasingly since the 1870's,
displayed a rather conservative mentality. Strongly
influenced by religious fundamentalism, its criticism of
the megapolitan industrial East and its harking back
to an authentic Americanism supplied the conservative
cause with emotional arguments.

In America as well as in Europe liberal and con-
servative arguments often merged. What makes it so
difficult for Europeans to draw a sharp line between
liberals and conservatives in the United States is a
missing guideline along strictly liberal or conservative
terms; there is neither a Burke nor a Locke in the
United States, which furthermore looked askance at
any influence of the Catholic Church. The controversy
between Hamilton and Madison seems to be reversed
though both sides claim Jefferson to be in their camp.
Even the often described tendency of Americans to
solve their hardly articulated ideological conflicts
“practically” tends to be conservative in itself and has
led to almost schizophrenic attitudes toward social

As a counterpoise to the social dynamism of a
democratic society, conservatism in the United States
has from time to time raised its head (for examples,
Henry and Brooks Adams), just as it has recurred as
the politics promoting the self-interest of social groups.
While the most convincing American conservative of
the nineteenth century was perhaps the Southerner
John C. Calhoun, the development of new forms of
conservatism independent of a certain area can be
traced back to the end of the century. The social
mobility of the American society at this time began
to run out into horizontal movements whereas such
ideals as the American “self-made” man were still
worshipped. Asking for stability and a social equilib-
rium Americans formed a society with deep distrust
of nonconformist behavior and change.

Further social and political changes in the last dec-
ades of the nineteenth century and particularly in the
1910's and 1920's, business reactions to certain New
Deal measures, and above all antisocialism, the fear
of communism, the “Cold War,” and the hot ones in
Korea and Vietnam together with latent prejudices and
antimodernistic tendencies (Irving Babbitt) have
induced a psychological and political situation which
was being spectacularly exploited by some conservative
and right-wing American politicians about 1970.