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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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CONSERVATISM
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CONSERVATISM

I. INTRODUCTION

1. Contemporary Usage. With the exception of
Scandinavia, England, and a few countries of the
British Commonwealth, no major national political
party has officially labelled itself “conservative.”
Parties of the political “right” are, however, frequently
called “conservative.” Moreover, in the course of a
general broadening of the political spectrum to the
“left,” the range of positions called “conservative” has
become increasingly wider; however, it has become
necessary to make a distinction between conservative
and reactionary positions and policies. In everyday
speech in the 1960's the term “conservative” seems
to be more widespread than the contrasting terms
“liberal” or “radical”; it denotes, as used by opponents
mostly with a critical or pejorative tone, an attitude
that attaches greater importance to the preservation
and care of the traditional and enduring than to inno-
vation and change. The typical conservative defends
individual and collective material and cultural posses-
sions, fears and resists revolution, and accepts progress
only as a gradual development from the existing politi-
cal system. This in turn places those who think and
feel conservatively in a permanently defensive position
from which they either incline to cultural pessimism
or are obliged to demonstrate that “genuine,” “true”
conservatism is not really hostile to change, but is
indispensable for the stability of a society with deep
concern for the maintenance of continuity.

2. Etymological Summary. In Latin conservare
means to protect, preserve, save; the noun of agency,
conservator, appears as a synonym for the substantives
custos, servator. Just as the Greek Sōter (“Savior”) was
adopted from the religious realm by the Hellenistic
cult of the ruler, so too conservator is found among
the Romans beginning in the Augustan era (as an
epithet of both Jupiter and Caesar). Augustus appears
as Novus Romulus, as protector of the mos maiorum
and pater patriae to whom the Senate dedicated the
coinage inscription Parenti Cons (ervatori) Suo.

In Christianity conservator appears along with the
proper name for the Savior (salvator) on some occa-
sions. Beginning in the thirteenth century, upon the
acceptance of Roman law, conservator appears north
of the Alps as a juridical and administrative term for
an imperial, royal, or church functionary charged with
the preservation or restoration of rights; in England
they were predecessors of the “Justices of the Peace.”
In French conservateur is used roughly from 1400 to
the end of the eighteenth century in the sense of an
“official charged with the guardianship and protection
of certain rights, of certain public property.”

The political usage of “conservative” is derived from
the French conservateur, and begins to appear only
after the French Revolution, and then very hesitantly.
In his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790)
Burke used the verb “to conserve,” while his German
translator, Friedrich Gentz, later spoke of the “tend-
ency to conserve.” In France conservateur in the sense
of moderation and conservation may also refer primar-
ily to idéés libérales. In this sense it was used, among
others, by Mme de Staël (1798) and by Nepoleon on
the 19th of Brumaire 1799: “Conservative, tutelary,
and liberal ideas have come into their own by the
dispersion of the factions which have been oppressing
the Councils.” The modern political meaning: “one
who is a partisan of the maintenance of the established
social and political order,” derives from Chateaubri-
and's weekly newspaper Le Conservateur (started in
1818). (“Le Conservateur will support religion, the
King, liberty, the Charter, and loyal, respectable peo-
ple....”) “Conservateur” has never appeared as the
official name of a party in France.

The characteristic political connotation of the
English term “conservative” took final form in the
1820's in line with French usage. In 1827 Wellington
expected from the “parti conservateur” of England the
unity of all forces dedicated to the preservation of
monarchical and aristocratic privileges in opposition
to radical demands; in the struggles over the final
version of the Reform Bill after 1830, “conservative”


478

was often understood in the sense of “local, consti-
tutional,” and as the antithesis of “anarchic, radical.”
As the name of a party and as the expression of a
changed conception of its own policies, “conservative
party” appeared along with “Tory party” for the first
time in 1830, though its meaning remained contro-
versial. It was the personality of Peel that imposed an
interpretation on the word “conservative” that may
still count as valid to this day: defense of law and order,
along with a willingness to reform any institution really
in need of amelioration, but by gradual and deliberate
steps.

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.

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.

IV. VARIOUS TYPES OF
CONSERVATIVE THOUGHT

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


482

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
structure.

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
Française.

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


483

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
“civilization.”

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


484

“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
problems.

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.

CONCLUSIONS

The general expansion of the political spectrum to
the “left” has had the result that many ideas and con-
ceptions of social order and governmental organization
that were initially promoted by liberal forces have not
only found their way into conservatism, but themselves
appear comparatively conservative. While liberal
party politics in contemporary Europe is only very
sluggishly active, conservatism has manifested itself as
a stable counterweight to socialism; this has, however,
been attained by a substantial surrender of its ideologi-
cal substance. It has even been able to absorb some
features of egalitarian democracy. It has come to an
accommodation with representative democracy most
readily in the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries.
In Catholic countries it has not really appeared inde-
pendently in political parties, but has animated the
conservative clerical wing of Catholic People's parties.
In the countries of the European continent, those with
moderate conservative outlooks vote mostly for Chris-
tian Democratic parties (Italy, Germany, Austria,
Belgium, Netherlands).

A special role has been played by de Gaullism, which
has displayed features of the Bonapartism of the nine-
teenth and the nationalist presidential system of the
twentieth century. Its success may be ascribed to the
crisis of the parliamentary system and to national self-
consciousness in France.

In the 1960's when radical critics denigrate even
bourgeois liberals and social democrats as conserv-
atives, the conservatives themselves are hardly able
to articulate their position unequivocally and ration-
ally. It is doubtful whether they are capable of offering
a convincing alternative to the democratic welfare
state with its liberal social character. They cannot halt
the profound and comprehensive social changes which
the modern world is experiencing. In this process con-
servatism seems to have the task of assuring continuity,
to be a corrective against progress-at-any-price, and
simply in this way to blunt reactionary tendencies.

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RUDOLF VIERHAUS

[See also Authority; Constitutionalism; Historicism; Ideol-
ogy; Liberalism; Nationalism; Revolution; Social Contract;
Social Democracy; State; Totalitarianism; Volksgeist.]